Newsjacking: what not-for-profits need to know

Newsjacking. Have you heard of it? It's a phrase that has been bouncing around the not-for-profit sector a lot lately, but admittedly, it took me a while to figure out what it means.

As for a former journalist, I was curious. "Newsjacking" doesn't sound good, exactly, but neither does it sound too bad. I assumed it is some sort of guerilla tactic, a term coined to describe a new way for not-for-profits to garner notice in mainstream media. Turns out, I wasn't so far off the mark.

A little research reveals that "newsjacking" seems to be the brainchild of David Meerman Scott, who published a book about it entitled Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.

Newsjacking isn't an idea that's specifically designed for not-for-profits, but certainly, folks in the charity sector are taking notice. Just this week, Kiiva (the well-known NFP microfinance lending organization) blogged about the book in great detail. In Kivi Leroux Miller's words (she's a Kiiva  blogger), Newsjacking is "about owning the second paragraph." She writes,

It works like this: a news story breaks. Journalists are under pressure to update that story for the next edition or broadcast. So while the core of the story (the first paragraph) doesn’t change all that much, the second paragraph does, with additional details or insights or related quotes. That’s your chance to swoop in with something a reporter can use that’s related — but not necessarily essential — to the main story to freshen it up. Then your part of the story gets repeated as other media outlets pick up the story.

Simply put, newsjacking is about inserting yourself or your organization into a story that you had nothing to do with in the first place. And when you put it that way, it sounds a little dodgy.


Miller writes,

Think about it . . . celebrities do both amazing and ridiculous things all the time. We also know that at some point in the coming months, there will be a natural disaster of some sort and a presidential candidate will say something really stupid. It’s also likely that a business or another nonprofit (either a sister organization, someone you consider competition, a national counterpart to your local group, etc. ) will go through some sort of crisis or other kind of newsmaking change. These occasions happen over and over; we just don’t know precisely when.

But when something like that does happen, could you follow the London Fire Brigade’s example and offer a training, or a tour, or volunteer hours, or an honorary seat on your board of directors in response? Could that newsworthy event have been prevented if they had downloaded your handbook, or taken your course, or heeded the advice you offer, or lived their lives like your clients do? Remember, these offers don’t necessarily have to be sincere . . . in many cases, humorous or satirical responses can work well too.

This take on newsjacking brings up a few sticking points for me. I'm not crazy about the idea of taking advantage of a natural disaster (or similar) in order to push my own agenda or increase my presence in the media. And I wouldn't recommend that reputable not-for-profits do so either, but I do think there are ways to use "newsjacking" to your benefit, without sacrificing ethics or simple good sense.

Certainly, not-for-profits should keep up to date on both local and international news and watch for those openings through which they may be able to become part of a story. Internal writers should practice producing press releases on the fly, in relation to news stories that could be connected to your interests. At the same time, unlike Miller, I do think sincerity is important. Humourous newsjacking is only advisable if the story you're hoping to "jack" is humourous in the first place. And I think conscientious not-for-profits should think hard before attempting to "jack" into a story that is serious and/or connected to the suffering of any individual or group.

Before you try this trick, consider the following questions:

1. Would a shift in focus (from the original story to you) hurt the subject or subjects of the original story in some way? Should focus perhaps stay where it is in order to do the most good?

2. Do you believe that inserting your organization's name or mission into the story will do tangible good? (That is, are you hoping to get your organization's name in the press simply to say "I told you so" or would such an insertion give readers real options for changed behaviour in the future?)

3. Were you to "jack" a story, would you feel good about it? (Sometimes, our conscience really is the best guide.)

Newsjacking is certainly an interesting idea, but it's a practice that is rife with potential pitfalls. My suggestion to not-for-profits is to look into it, but be wary at the same time. 

Header image by JayofBoy, SXC, with modifications by Nyman Ink. Body image by Nadia Meslem, SXC, with modifications by Nyman Ink.


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