Newsjacking Or Ambulance Chasing – What’s the Difference?

Posted by on July 27th, 2012

What’s that?  Breaking news: a top executive at one of the big banks just got accused of fraud.  This is great! I have a client who can talk about all of the regulations he breached and what the consequences may be.  Perfect, let me hit the phones and get this pitch out.

In PR, we’ve all done it – it’s called newsjacking.  You see a breaking story, realize your client fits perfectly and can comment, and use it as a hook to get that person front and center with the media.  It’s not bad, it’s just how you get inserted into a top-of-mind story and help your client get out there and stay relevant.
But what happens when newsjacking becomes a little seedier… when does riding the coattails of a major story become ambulance chasing?

Last week the tragic shooting in Aurora took the nation by storm and coverage was all over every news outlet.  Without having a client directly related to the shooting, I would be hesitant to touch this story with a ten foot pole.  However, one store saw the trending #Aurora hashtag and hopped on the bandwagon (they claim inadvertently) to promote an eponymously named dress inspired by reality star Kim Kardashian – the backlash was immediate and massive.

So when is it okay to hop on news of the day, and when should you avoid?  Here are a few questions to ask before hitting the phones:

  • Can your client really comment on (and add value to) the issue at hand, or is it a major stretch? If your client is a regulatory expert and you want to insert them into a story about a new SEC debate – that makes sense!  If your client is in the entertainment industry and wants to predict how the shooting will affect box office sales of The Dark Knight Rises – you may want to think about what that would really do for them.
  • Will it help your client in the long run? Consider how hopping on a certain story will make your client look.  Will it seem like they are on top of key issues, or like they just want some press in a tumultuous time?  You can’t control how every story turns out, but if discussing a certain topic is going to make your client look bad, hold out for another, less controversial story.
  • What does your gut tell you? Right off the bat, if you feel off pitching a source to be included in a story, it may be a good idea to counsel your client to avoid that topic.  Ask them – will this really help your business?  If it will and the story is directly in your client’s wheelhouse, go for it.  But if you feel uneasy, you may be on to something.

Now can someone please go steal some very expensive gold coins or heirlooms? I have a client in the collectibles business who would be perfect to discuss that…