There’s Nothing Savvy About Marketing or Newsjacking Disasters

Hijacking bad things

This week, the eastern coast of the U.S. has been battered by Hurricane Sandy, one of the biggest storms to make land in the U.S.

The states of Connecticut, Delaware, District of Colombia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia have all bore the brunt of this “superstorm”.

So far, 16 people in the U.S. are confirmed dead. One woman died in Toronto, Canada after flying debris hit her. 50 people lost their lives in Haiti and the Caribbean as Sandy’s deadly path took shape.

And this is just the early hours of the disaster. Sadly, like any storm of this magnitude, the death toll and damage is likely to be worse yet, not to mention animals and livestock caught up in the devastation.

With all this in mind, you’d think we’d be more concerned about the welfare of those in harm’s way than taking advantage of some cool marketing opportunities, right?

Then again, this is the marketing industry we’re talking about – and I say that as part of that very industry, which is why this appalls me even more.

The Opportunity of Disaster

Yesterday, the inbound marketing business HubSpot published 5 examples of companies that have “newsjacked” (the practice of taking news stories and using them to your advantage) the disaster that is Hurricane Sandy.

HubSpot themselves took some heat in the comments, forcing them to edit the post – although it’s still not worded in a terribly sympathetic way.

Examples included a Hurricane Hair board on Pinterest, to a make-up company advising you how to look great by candlelight and ensure your nails are tip top. Because chipped nails while sifting through the debris of your destroyed home wouldn’t be the done thing, right?

While none of the examples are as tacky as the Kenneth Cole Cairo tweet – and one does offer generators and air mattresses for those affected by the storm – they don’t paint a great picture of the companies either.

The comments on the HubSpot post are pretty split – some defend the companies and their “marketing savvy”, while others call out the practice as well as HubSpot for the article.

As I mentioned earlier, HubSpot felt inclined to edit the post, so it’s possible the article was more “offensive” and some of the commenters didn’t see the earlier version (at a guess).

Can Newsjacking Work?

There’s no doubt that a hot topic is a way to get yourself – personally or professionally – into the “spotlight”. Heck, marketers and bloggers do it all the time on Twitter during various tweetchats, #blogchat often experiencing some of the worst hijacking from people desperate to share their blog posts.

Yet none of these are taking advantage of disasters to sell their product or service. It’s like hacking into the 911 emergency lines to call your girlfriend to save on your phone bill.

Can newsjacking work? For sure – if it’s done right. David Meerman Scott, who wrote the book Newsjacking, offers ways to interlope into other news stories and infiltrate your brand or message, and there are great examples in there.

However, it’s also very telling that David himself commented on the HubSpot piece, with less than a favourable view:

Newsjacking something related to death and destruction is very dangerous. I’m reading this morning that 20 people have died and there is billions of dollars in damage. That’s not fun nor funny.

If your company has a legitimate tie to the disaster and you are genuinely seen as being helpful then okay. For example, a home improvement superstore could blog “just received a shipment of 250 generators in the Boston store.”

But a frivolous attempt at newsjacking to draft off the news of the storm to sell a product unrelated to the storm is bad form and may trigger a negative backlash. A restaurant that says “Storm special – 35% off all appetizers” is not a good idea.

When the guy that wrote the book on newsjacking doesn’t see the benefits of these examples, then you know they’ve missed the boat and, perhaps, HubSpot has too with their article.

Although they also had their own frivolous moment with their specific Facebook post – because, yes, company messages going out are far more important than the company making sure their employees are safe.

5 Hurricane Sandy Newsjacks From Marketers

So who knows..?

Additional reading: Doug Haslam, “Newsjacking” – A Good Idea with Dangerous Pitfalls

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Blog consulting with Danny Brown

Enjoy this post? Share your thoughts below:


  1. says

    Yes I have never understood the point in newsjacking a tragedy or emergency situation. How does that relate to your business?

    If you are not part of the solution needed in that moment – power-fresh water-food then find ways to direct people to”real” things they need in that situation. Would look much better on your brand. Otherwise you look like a moronic vulture.

    • says

      Exactly, Michele – like David Meerman Scott offers in his comment, show you have a solution and help those in need, and do it in a genuine manner. It’s like the Washington Post and New York Times (I think) that have disabled their paywalls for now and are allowing anyone access to their premium site to get updates on the disaster. That’s how you “newsjack”.

  2. says

    See how much ‘traffic’ means to some people?

    Thanks for making me aware of this, Danny. It’s so disappointing to see people who should know better, acting with so little class.

    • says

      It kinda reminds me of the Seth Godin book promo that time, mate – seemed completely out of character, and he definitely took a lot of heat for it. I guess there’s always an exception…

    • says

      Is calling out questionable practices or non-relevant articles “newsjacking”, Leesa? I’d say they were two very different things. And, for the record, I never accused you of newsjacking – just questioned whether the article would be seen as linkbait, since it had Steve Jobs in the title so soon after his death.

      • says

        The examples you list in your blog post are definitely newsjacking – and quite distastefully at that. My post, although it came out when Steve Jobs’ book was released is still relevant and applicable today. I wasn’t using his news story to garner traffic – I was using the connection between our relationships between our biological fathers to ask my audience a question about regrets. In any case, I raised this to see if there is a difference between newsjacking and linkbaiting and I’m happy to see that the two are mutually exclusive.

  3. says

    Thanks for saying this out loud, Danny. And I’m glad to read David Meerman Scotts minced no words in his own rapid response.

    Tying into news makes good sense. Exploiting others’ hardship is not only bad marketing (it can surely backfire big time and often has) it’s insensitive, inhumane, living up to the stereotype of sleazy marketing. So why am I not surprised that the marketing equivalent of shock jocks, American Apparel would stoop so low again, @mikestenger:disqus?

    A last thought – I have to wonder if it continues, like negative campaign ads (tis the season) because analysis show it “works” despite widespread complaints. It would be an even sadder comment on us as a culture then.

    • says

      What’s interesting/sad, Diane, and ties into your last point, is how examples like the Kenneth Cole tweet, or negative promotions, seem to damage the company little. While many people express outrage or disgust, the general public goes on about business as normal.

      Which kinda suggests two things – social media, for all its hoopla, is still not mainstream. And people genuinely don’t care about anything much that’s outside their own little world. Sad times for our cultures, indeed.

  4. says

    Many organizations are still grasping the nuisances of social media. There is a fine line between sharing important information with people regarding where they can go to get goods and services they need after a disaster such as in Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy and attaching your organization’s name to the disaster for straight selling. Disasters such as this provide organizations an opportunity to be of service to communities through meaningful engagement and shared compassion in a difficult time if they are prepared. A super example of engagement with compassion would be the American fastfood chain Hardee’s during the Joplin Tornadoes. And I’m sure after the winds die down and water recedes, we will have some more good examples.

    • says

      Great point, Ann, and it’s a shame HubSpot didn’t decide to share examples of positive marketing, if you like. As you mentioned on Facebook, there are enough out there and the days and weeks ahead will (hopefully) see the good outshine the bad and the questionable.

  5. says

    David Meerman Scott’s post contained two links to his own book (including an SEO-perfect title link), and a cover image of the book in the first fold.

    The now-revised and comment-scrubbed Hubspot post now links back to his post *and* his book (to the sales page on Amazon, even, rather than the website he set up to promote it), and many who work for the company are tweeting out his post link.

    He’s an advisor to their team, and while at first glance it looks like he’s holding them accountable because of that interest, he’s ultimately doing the same thing… and with their help.

  6. says

    As is true in many cases, the “could you look them in the eyes and say it” test should apply here, too. Can you imagine looking your customer in the eye and saying to them “Hey – come celebrate the hurricane with 50% off our line of gym equipment!” If not, then don’t put that in your ad.

  7. says

    Generally speaking, newsjacking comes across as tacky.

    I read the examples provided by HubSpot, and playing what will likely be an unpopular devil’s advocate, I’m not sure the Sears example is newsjacking. Is it newsjacking or is it merely making sure folks know that needed supplies are available?

    I was publisher of a newspaper in a hurricane zone and in the issues immediately following a hurricane, we’d always sell a lot more advertising – centered around repairs, home improvement, etc. – as well as more papers.

    Are those ads newsjacking? When I printed extra papers, was I newsjacking?

    Is there a difference in Lowe’s running a full-page ad in a newspaper immediately after a disaster and Sears sending a tweet – both essentially advertising the same thing?

    The line is not so easy to find. I mean, we can all agree that some examples of newsjacking are tacky, yet others may be simply informing people where they can purchase necessary equipment.

  8. David Meerman Scott says

    Danny, I do think newsjacking is an excellent way to draft off a news story and generate attention. But there are a few guidelines including: 1) You should have a legitimate tie to the story and 2) You shouldn’t exploit death and destruction unless you are offering help for victims.

    The HubSpot post generated some good discussion, continued here and on my blog, so it had some value for us to learn from.

  9. says

    Hey Danny. I actually posted a comment on the HubSpot blog last night echoing the same concerns. It’s people like those who created (and okay’d) those campaigns that just gives the marketing profession a bad name. Instead of trying to exploit the situation, perhaps marketing professionals could use their marketing and social media acumen to try and HELP those affected by disasters – like getting people to donate to the red cross. Cheers, Robert

    • says

      Exactly, mate – show me how I can help (even if that means buying something because you’ll donate X to the cause), and I’ll be far more likely to respond.

      Newsjacking in these kinds of instances though? No thanks.

  10. says

    Yes this really is a cheap trick from Hubspot to gain more traffic. As a reputable company I think an element of governance would be helpful. An amusing thought occurs to me – imagine Klout or PeerIndex being able to take twenty points off them for bringing marketing into distribute. Clearly, some companies need to be monitored, sad really!!

    • says

      I think what really disappointed was the edited update, Shaun, where essentially it comes across as Hubspot now asking “Who do you blame?” and directing folks to the very companies they highlighted in a more positive manner in the original post.

      That came across as less than fair, but hey ho.

      Cheers, sir!

  11. says

    I read the Hubspot post and had mixed feelings. They were kind of also news jacking in my opinion. That said I wasn’t offended by all the examples. Sears to me was fine. Often people blow off getting gear they could use until it is too late. And I am sure some of this stuff was created before the gravity of the event was clear. How many people wish they had generators now?

    I really feel that businesses have to be careful but if my supermarket sold a survival package and aired ads prior to the storm with a ‘Don’t be this guy… this guy’ stunt knowing they will be raking in cash I am ok with it because it probably benefits people.

    • says

      Oh, fully agree mate – and, having read their “new updated” post where they essentially shift blame onto the examples they use? It starts to enforce the views that it was just a traffic driver.

      And for sure – as others have commented here, if there’s genuine connection and wish to help a cause or reason behind the “jacking”, I’m all for that. But show me someone who’s truly worried about their nail polish when there’s a 100mp/h wind battering your home and your life is in danger? Yeah, right.

  12. Jodi Bakken says

    Thanks for the interesting article. It’s a controversial marketing approach to say the least. While marketing may get noticed, it doesn’t necessarily paint a company in a tasteful light and can hurt long-term image building.