Should Newsjacking Be a Part of a Communication Strategy?

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With the advent of the social media, brands now have significant ability to pick up a news item and turn it to their advantage, attracting attention in their communities. Though the technique may be a useful part of a digital communication strategy, it should nevertheless be used in moderation. Otherwise, there could be a heavy price to pay in terms of reputation.

Jumping on a news item to send a lighthearted message to one’s consumers is nothing new in itself. Brands have made fun of people in the news for years. Their preferred targets are usually politicians. Originally, mostly charitable associations and NGOs took a subject that was the talk of the town to capture the public’s attention and promote their cause to decision-makers. Then brands ventured into the fray. And thus began the era of newsjacking.

The French car rental company Sixt, for example, uses it often. In 2010, with the media buzzing about the imminent wedding of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the singer Carla Bruni, the company rolled out a campaign showing a little French car and a somewhat provocative slogan: “Do like Mrs. Bruni. Get a little French one” (an allusion to Nicolas Sarkozy’s short stature). Sixt did it again in 2014 when a celebrity magazine leaked the affair between the French President François Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet, showing the resident of the presidential palace on a scooter on his way to an amorous rendezvous. The brand was quick to put out a billboard advising the president to take a car with tinted windows the next time!

Digital increases newsjacking tenfold

In an increasingly congested media landscape bombarded with content, brands and companies are drawing swords to capture the attention and interest of their targets. The communication equation has become substantially more complex now that the social networks are embedded in the daily lives of customers and consumers. A wealth of creativity and agility must be deployed in order to be noticed. Brands have understood the value of seizing the slightest opportunity during a large-scale event through digital communication. Oreo cookie is one such brand. In 2013, during the Super Bowl game in the United States, the Superdome was suddenly plunged into semi-darkness due to a power outage. The brand immediately sent out a tweet telling people that they can “still dunk in the dark”. The clever quip was retweeted thousands of times, garnering unprecedented media coverage for the brand.

Since then, community managers have been on the look-out for even insignificant news that they can use to put their brand center stage. During the iPhone6 launch in 2014, a controversy quickly broke out when the latest member of the Apple family was said to bend when it was put in one’s back pocket.  Several brands immediately ran with it, including Nestlé’s KitKat chocolate candy bar. It sent out a graphic showing how to eat the bar by snapping it at a 45-degree angle (“We don’t bend, we break”). The message was retweeted more than 23,000 times, beating the previous record set by Oreo!

Beware of traps

This makes it very tempting to rush into “kidnapping” the latest centers of media attention. But the backlash can be unpredictable. Michel & Augustin, the French brand of yogurts and cookies, learned this the hard way. In 2012, on the eve of the presidential elections, it launched a limited edition of products illustrated with figurines of presidential candidate couples. Everything seemed to be lined up for a successful marketing newsjacking. But a few days later Michel & Augustin ended the campaign and published an apology on its Facebook page: “Several serious scandals have erupted in the stores (liquid yogurts thrown against the walls, arguments between customers, etc.) We’re a bit overwhelmed by these rather surrealistic reactions. We’re pulling back. IT’S OVER. Many apologies”. In the stores, political militants were in fact up in arms and found the joke not to their taste!

Probably worse was the misadventure of the French e-commerce site 3 Suisses in January 2015. The mail order chain had designed a graphic, “I Am 3 Suisses” on the model of the drawing “I Am Charlie” created by a young graphic designer just after the terrorist attack against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The company’s logo was graphically blended with that of the latter, which had been intended as a call to action to those who wanted to express their disgust at the murders committed by the jihadists. But the effect sought by 3 Suisses turned into bad buzz. The graphic had barely gone on line when Net users lashed out at the brand. Nothing was spared: caustic remarks, vicious parodies, scathing use of the logo and, to top it all off, savage accusations of hijacking a tragic event in the name of marketing.  The brand withdrew the besieged logo a few hours later.

Tact and pertinence

Newsjacking is undoubtedly a clever technique to draw attention, as long as it is tactful and pertinent.  The first step to take before venturing to communicate on a given news item is to make sure that the brand has credibility fordoing so.  In the case of 3 Suisses, the approach was inappropriate because it was perceived as having too many connotations of commercial opportunism. The brand should have limited itself to using its generic logo, just like many other companies, without trying to stand out in the crowd at any price.

And newsjacking shouldn’t be used repeatedly or at the drop of a hat. When Princess Charlotte was born in the United Kingdom in May 2015, the brands overdid it, each trying to claim center stage with offbeat graphics. The result: a huge din, with no brand clearly emerging and Net users growing tired of seeing the same strings pulled by all of the them. Pertinent messages and scarce appearances are still the keys to successful newsjacking.