When Newsjacking Becomes Newsworthy

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Don’t newsjack a negative story” says marketing expert David Meerman Scott. Disaster is not something that should be capitalized upon, and you can imagine the negative backlash if a corporation were to do something in such bad taste.

Newsjacking is normally associated with brands trying to insert their message into a trending topic.  The most famous examples have been highlighted during major cultural events such as the Oscars and the Superbowl.  When things get serious though, it’s very hard to read the room and know if it’s inappropriate to voice an opinion, or worse, a thinly-veiled pitch.

In a very subtle example of newsjacking recently though, I saw one small NGO find an opportunity to gain some exposure for their cause, within the depths of the Malaysia Airlines tragedy.  And it worked because their tone was appropriate for the intensity of the tragedy, and the serious work that their organization is doing.

Meerman Scott explains that newsjacking is ‘injecting your ideas or commentary into a breaking news story and generating stacks of media coverage’.  When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing on March 8, the news coverage went into overdrive as the world clung to hope that the plane would be soon found.  Days turned into weeks however, and the search turned from the skies to the sea.  But the search for answers turned up nothing.  Nothing, but garbage.

In late March, the media caught onto the issue that the sheer volume of rubbish in our oceans was making it impossible to know what could have been debris from the missing plane.  I’m sure we’ve all been told about the amount of waste polluting the sea, but this was the first time many of us had realized the extent.

The 5 Gyres Institute quickly became THE authority on the matter and shared their insights and expertise with media organizations all over the world.

“That’s a massive tragedy that’s brought to life this other tragedy that’s happening”, co-founder Marcus Eriksen said to Santa Monica Daily Press.  “It’s bittersweet that it took a couple hundred lives lost to bring attention to a global catastrophe,”.

Marcus Eriksen on CNN

This was a very traditional PR approach though, and they credited their communications director for their appearances on CNN for 4 days in a row.  Within a week, most major media outlets had picked up on this angle to the story, and Eriksen was quoted in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Mashable, Nine News Australia, CBC, and National Geographic to name just a few.

This was also an exceptionally long news-cycle (longer than anyone would have wanted or expected), and most instances of newsjacking take place much sooner in real-time.  Not many go straight to TV either, rather they start in the digital space with content such as a tweet or a blog post.

5 Gyres did have a short video clip that was shared in many articles, driving traffic back to their own sites.  On social media, @5Gyres certainly shared the media attention, but did not elaborate too much (though they did call out CNN for using plastic water bottles – tut tut!!).

What surprised me was that when the media was in need of subject experts, they didn’t go to more well-known environmental organizations such as Greenpeace.  Meerman Scott says that it’s fear that holds most people back from newsjacking, and I suspect that this might have explained their low-profile on the issue.  I really feel that they could have done more though.  5 Gyres showed that their insights were presented at just the right time, when journalists and audiences were still desperate for news.

Interestingly, Ocean Conservancy were much more active on twitter around the same time, blogged about the issue, and had a very sharable infographic.

Ocean Conservancy Ocean Trash Index

I’m sure the message resonated with their existing community, but it didn’t seem to get picked up by such a wide audience.  It makes me think that a combination of digital strategy and an old-school PR push might be needed to really make an impact.

Above all, newsjacking is about sharing content and building trust through thought leadership, not pushing products or sales.  I do hope that when it comes round to fundraising or advocacy for both 5 Gyres and Ocean Conservancy, that they have more support than ever from a more informed public.

5 Gyres / National Geographic