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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Danny Brown
Co-author Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing. #1 marketing blog in world as per HubSpot. Husband. Father. Optimist. Pragmatist. Never says no to a good single malt. You can find me on Twitter - Google+ - LinkedIn.

Share your thoughts

35 Comments on "There’s Nothing Savvy About Marketing or Newsjacking Disasters"


Jodi Bakken
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Sam Fiorella
2 years 1 month ago
You've heard the saying: "marketers ruin everything" right?
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
I've heard the saying "Sam Fiorella ruins everything", if that counts?
Gini Dietrich
2 years 1 month ago
Did you see American Apparel sent an email to their east coast email addresses offering them a discount if they bought during the hurricane?
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
Yeah - I saw that start to do the rounds after the Hubspot piece. I guess the circle keeps on growing....
HowieG
2 years 1 month ago
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.....be this guy' stunt knowing they will be raking in cash I am ok with it because it probably benefits people.
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Shaun Westgate
2 years 1 month ago
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!!
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
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!
Robert Clarke
2 years 1 month ago
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
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
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.
David Meerman Scott
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
Hi there David, Agreed, and as the comments here show, there can definitely be value (the Hardee's one from @avandenhurk:disqus being a great example). http://smartblogs.com/food-and-beverage/2011/06/22/how-hardees-used-social-media-to-help-its-storm-ravaged-chains/ Where I felt HubSpot fell down is it just seemed an irrelevant post put together simply for traffic. The apology and updated post (which seems to now blame the brands to try divert attention away from the original approach) only goes to back up that thought, unfortunately. Cheers - will check out your post.
Clay Morgan
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
I think the line comes from a genuine attempt to help versus a clear jumping on opportunity, mate. Looking at the Hardee's example, they showed you could "profit from disaster" with the right intentions. http://smartblogs.com/food-and-beverage/2011/06/22/how-hardees-used-social-media-to-help-its-storm-ravaged-chains/ But, as others have pointed out, do you really give a crap what your lipstick looks like when fighting for your life and survival, as many people are and were?
Clay Morgan
2 years 1 month ago
I agree mate (can I use that, being that I'm from Tennessee?). Some lines are clear (lipstick, hair dos bad form/where to get a generator is OK), but I think it gets dicey when we find ourselves in between.
Tonia Ries
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
Exactly - but how many marketers perform that test, Tonia? Sadly, common sense and ethics don't always come into play.
Meg Fowler Tripp
2 years 1 month ago
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.
Danny Brown
2 years 1 month ago
Hmm, I didn't know that - thanks for the heads-up, Meg. More sighs.