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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