Most of the time in PR, your best bet is to craft your brand’s image carefully, and take as much control over the narrative as you possibly can. You generally want all public facing messages to be well planned and executed according to the timing that makes the most sense for your company. You want to choose where and how your content will be shared, and you work hard to be proactive, not reactive. But sometimes it can pay big to throw all of that out the window. As proof, I bring you these awesome examples of retailers who killed it at newsjacking.
Newsjacking is a gift that the internet, particularly social media, has given to the quickest thinking, most clever, and best prepared public relations professionals. It involves taking advantage of a trending news story or event to amplify your brand. The goal is to take something that people are already talking about and inject your brand into the conversation where it makes sense. This often involves social media content, but may also take the form of reaching out to journalists to give them a new and unique angle on the story that sets your brand up as an authority on the matter.
The advantage of newsjacking is that it can get attention for your brand at a very low cost. It can introduce you to new audiences and influencers. It also brings context to your messages and can help evolve your media pitches beyond product advertisements, to relevant, interesting material that audiences will appreciate. It can also be hilarious.
Here are some excellent examples from retail brands.
Arby’s and Pharrell’s Hat
At the Grammy’s in 2014, Daft Punk won the award for album of the year, but Arby's took home the trophy for Tweet of the Week. Pharrell Williams is known for his unique fashion sense, so it probably didn’t surprise anyone that he showed up to the event in an odd-looking hat. The Twitterverse took note and jokes about it started to fly across the network. Someone from Arby’s was with it enough to note that the hat looked quite a bit like the company’s logo and that the hat was a “thing” if only momentarily. Arby’s tweeted:
Boom! That simple tweet earned 75,000 retweets and more than 40,000 favorites by Monday morning. Here’s what’s even crazier than that. Folks from Pepsi and Hyundai (probably also watching the Grammys for newsjacking opportunities) tweeted congratulations to Arby’s for the social media win. By early Monday morning, the star himself acknowledged the thread.
Reebok and the POTUS
The only thing that isn’t controversial about the new president is that he’s controversial. Many brands reasonably see making any comments related to the president as something like a third rail. Don’t touch it. Athletic shoemaker New Balance learned this when after the election a spokesperson said something positive about Trump’s trade policy, sparking protests that involved folks burring sneakers in the streets.
In July, Reebok found an opportunity for newsjacking that they felt was worth the risk of calling the president out on something he said. During a visit to Paris, in an exchange that was caught on camera, Trump told French President Marcon’s wife, Brigitte, who is 64, that she was, “In such good shape — beautiful.” The comment was quickly seized upon as being wildly inappropriate under the circumstances. Reebok created a helpful flowchart to determine if this was true.
In case you were wondering when it IS appropriate to say, "You're in such good shape...beautiful,"... THIS: pic.twitter.com/Z1cnnRD8Ut— Reebok (@Reebok) July 14, 2017
In a statement to the Washington Post, Reebok's director of brand management, Inga Stenta, said that the company's tweet spoke to its commitment to female customers. "Reebok first came on the scene with women's fitness, and today we are committed to helping change the narrative around women," she wrote. "We saw this as an opportunity — as a learning moment. Instead of judging or labeling, let’s raise the bar and push for progress."
Chiquita Banana and Totality
The Arby’s and Reebok examples show what can happen when a brand takes advantage of something that is happening in the moment. Chiquita found a way to create an entire campaign around an event that everyone knew was coming and that a lot of brands tried to leverage less successfully, the August 21 eclipse that was visible across much of North America. They realized that as the moon moved across the sun, there would be two moments when a sliver of the sun would be visible forming a shape that looks very much like a banana. They jumped on this fact and created an entire social media campaign including videos and even a Facebook chatbot to report live during the event.
“On the path of totality, you will see two distinct banana suns,” the brand informed readers. “The total eclipse occurs in between the two banana suns as a sort of lackluster intermission.”
The clever, if somewhat silly campaign worked because it was perfectly on-brand for Chiquita. “From debuting our iconic Blue Stickers in 1944 to introducing the world to Miss Chiquita, we’ve always aimed to drive Chiquita’s message of fun through vibrant and light-hearted visual storytelling,” said Andrew Biles, Chiquita Brands International’s president, and CEO. “’We Are Bananas’ continues that tradition with new and exciting out-of-this-world creative for our fans.”
Christian Siriano makes "The" Dress for Leslie Jones
In July 2016, Actress Leslie Jones ran into a little trouble in preparation for the premiere of her movie Ghostbusters. She wanted a body-conscious gown that was outside of her usual casual style but was turned down by several designers. She mentioned her disappointment about this on Twitter and designer Christian Siriano volunteered for the honor. He knew exactly what to do.
The stunning gown Siriano created for Jones was an adaptation of the one that Julia Robert’s character famously wore to the opera in the film Pretty Woman. Siriano made the not so subtle statement that Leslie Jones is indeed a pretty woman. (She looked amazing.) He also may have made the other designers recall one of the film’s most popular moments when Robert’s character returns to a store that earlier refused her service. Now well dressed and laden with packages, she refuses their attention telling the clerk, “Big mistake. Huge.”
Here’s a fun fact about newsjacking, it can pay dividends for a long time. Just this last week Jones attended Christian Siriano's Spring 2018 fashion show. From all the evidence, it looks like she had a fantastic time. The Today Show featured a post on the event and included a link to the original story about the Ghostbusters premiere.
Why were these brands so adept at capitalizing on what happened to be going on in the world? They got a few things right.
They were prepared. Arby’s had no idea that Pharrell would wear a logo-inspired hat, but they knew that the Grammys was happening. They knew people would watch and tweet about it, so they put themselves in the position to capitalize on anything beef sandwich-related that might come up.
They trusted the team. Newsjacking often requires instant action. If Arby’s had 5 levels of approval for social media comments, the tweet wouldn’t have happened. If Siriano didn’t know he could make Leslie Jones look fantastic, he might have missed the opportunity.
They were well aligned with the brand. It’s OK for Chiquita Bananas to be silly. Such a light-hearted campaign wouldn’t have worked for Apple. Reebok customers appreciated that they stood up for women, it’s part of their identity. I can think of lots of other brands that would have created a very different reaction.
They cut through the noise. It’s 2017 and news is all around us every minute of every day. The challenge isn’t knowing what’s going on; it’s on knowing what’s relevant. Your brand might not be able to get the attention of celebrities, but you may be able to get the attention of reporters if you notice certain types of spikes in coverage and social chatter. You need to know when:
- A competitive product launch picked up extraordinary momentum
- A topic or issue begins trending in your industry
- When crisis coverage (yours or someone else’s) starts to go viral
Those are newsjacking opportunities, but you have to act fast. There is no “news cycle” anymore; everything happens in real-time. Newsjacking can be effective and fun, but it can also backfire. (See Pepsi’s protest ad.) The smartest brands are ready to pounce when the right moment arises, but careful to stay relevant to the brand’s message pillars. They also measure the impact of each mention so they can capitalize on the next opportunity with even more fantastic results.