Newsjacking is a simple idea used in digital marketing. It means to inject your idea into a breaking news story in order to generate media coverage or social attention of your business, which we call “earned media”. It’s very common nowadays in the U.S. for brands to comment on latest news via their social media. But the following example led to controversy with this popular marketing tactic.
In May 2013, there was a famous kidnap news in Cleveland, Ohio. Three women were held captive in a Cleveland house for years until one neighbor Charles Ramsey helped rescue them out. This courageous neighbor became a well known hero at that time, and in the interview he told the reporter before the rescue he went to McDonald’s to buy burgers, and he was eating his Mac burger when he heard the screaming of one of the victim. McDonald’s noticed it and tweeted with its corporate account about this abduction:
There were lots of buzz about McDonald’s tweet afterwards. Some people applauded McDonald’s for reaching out to Ramsey, but others condemned it for the tweet. Chris Ann Goddard, President of the PR firm CGPR, said, “I call it news-jacking. They’re taking advantage of a situation to help their brand.” A lot of discussions and reviews stated that McDonald’s shouldn’t capitalize on the sensation of a tragic news to make its brand look good. (McDonald’s Ohio kidnap tweet raises eyebrows ; Did McDonald’s Cross the Line in Tweet About Ohio Kidnapping Case?)
McDonald’s claimed that it was doing what “thousands” of people had urged it to do- to reward the McDonald’s-eating hero who helped free the victims, and later in the end of that month, McDonald’s announced that Ramsey would get free McDonald’s for the whole year and that it donated $10,000 to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Ramsey’s name, which made the buzz last longer. Some reviewers commented in a sarcastic way, saying that maybe in later 911 calls people would incidentally mention Domino’s pizza, iPods, or Nike Sneakers.
In my view, this newsjacking of McDonald’s was failed. It wasn’t wrong for McDonald to want to be related with the positive image of the kidnap hero, but the intend was somewhat too obvious. It did get lots of earned media- lots of discussion and news talking about the tweet, but were not in a good way, which meant McDonald’s failed its goal to gain positive brand image through this tweet. This kind of inappropriate social actions I will refer them to newsjacking, not real-time marketing. To me, engagement using breaking news that is appropriate, unharmed to anyone, and positively enhance brands’ image is real-time marketing, such as what Oreo did during the blackout of Superbowl.
Nowadays, all brands work actively on social media and try hard to act as consumers’ friends, replying to fans’ and commenting on news in a casual tone. But brands are still not our real friends in daily life, and there are certain limitations or topics that shouldn’t be touched by them. Although now everything is all about real-time actions, brands should still be very careful and cautious before tweeting or posting out anything on social media. After all, any action that cross the line incautiously might result in unexpected adverse effect and will leave permanent trace on the Internet.