With time, space, and attention spans in limited supply, editorial decisions must be made as to whether a story has legs
Curtis Sparrer, BoSpar
The PR community has coined the term “newsjacking” to describe the so-called hijacking of breaking news to get coverage for clients. Interestingly, despite obvious pejorative connotations, in many instances the term supports incredibly beneficial activities.
I prefer the term “breaking news optimization.” It involves catching a trending wave in a news cycle that is sector/company relevant and successfully riding it all the way to the shore. Done well, newsjacking leads to increased company visibility with enhanced perception as an industry and thought leader.
The Beach Boys got it right: “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world”
Intuitively, we all know what happens when something of consequence occurs: the media channels erupt. A recent example is Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica imbroglio.
Next comes the bandwagon effect, with reporters from various outlets rushing to find an angle/narrative, putting their investigative capabilities to work, and rounding up “experts” for commentary. The crush is on to be recognized as an authoritative and informative voice on the subject, as the media channels elbow each other to be the first with information and on top of search results pages.
As the first blush of news sinks in, the mandate from editors to reporters is to find “reliable sources” who can provide analysis and quotes about what the news means to real people, what it means for the future, and why we should care. What they are looking for as the stories evolve are attention-grabbing insights that continue to interest readers.
Now things get interesting. With time, space, and attention spans in limited supply, editorial decisions must be made as to whether a story has legs. Is the news interesting enough to warrant further investigation and resources? If the answer is “yes,” what questions are left unanswered? And is there new and compelling information that inquiring minds want to know?
Where PR pros really earn their keep is in helping clients determine whether a story is worth chasing or not. This is not as simple as it seems. Case in point: when a competitor introduces a new product or feature. The kneejerk reaction of clients is to be out there immediately trying to convince reporters to downplay the news. However, reporters typically don’t like pointless disputes and will leave the competitive context to industry analysts. There is a fine line between being seen as an objective expert and an opportunistic interloper.
It is best to save pitching a company’s observations on the news of the day for another, more pressing and visible time. In such instances, waiting for a call for comment from a media contact with whom company executives and PR people have a trusted relationship is almost always a smart move. It avoids some very awkward moments.
Timing is everything, so be ready to rumble
The latter recommendation was recently illustrated by the way my firm Bospar handled the Facebook news about the abuse of personal information by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential election – seemingly part of Russian efforts to influence its outcome.
After the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower made headlines around the world, BoSpar waited for the right moment to leverage the event. When news broke that Mark Zuckerberg would testify before Congress, the firm’s staff immediately commissioned research about Americans’ opinions about Facebook. The objective was to advance what clearly was going to be a story with legs by giving reporters a new angle to pursue.
While our survey was being fielded, we began outreach to those contacts. Results from our survey were in the evening after Zuckerberg testified and we spent the night drafting a release that was published the next day, which helped secure coverage in Barron’s, as well as live interviews on the local Bay Area ABC and NBC stations.
So what lessons were learned?
- Be prepared crises and major breaking opportunities do not operate on timetables
- Offer something new, which provides differentiated value and storytelling
- Use validated facts to avoid being labeled a purveyor of “alternative facts”
- Don’t practice “hit-and-run” relationship management
- Be respectful of deadlines
- Promptly respond to inquiries
A good news story is a terrible thing to waste. It is not “jacking” of any type when you can create a win-win for your clients and the media. Time to go catch that wave.
Curtis Sparrer is principal at Bospar, which earned a 2018 PRWeek Award as Outstanding Boutique Agency.