The first 2016 presidential debate was, according to Twitter, the “most tweeted debate ever.” Within days, the social media platform announced that the second presidential debate had outperformed the first, with more than 17 million tweets sent during the Trump/Clinton town hall. Among those tweets, alongside the numerous Kenneth Bone GIFs…
…were posts from charitable and purpose-driven organizations like the 92nd Street Y and Feeding America, which used the platform to share questions and concerns from their audience and highlight issues that overlapped with their missions.
“Newsjacking”—attaching your organization’s messages to relevant breaking news and cultural events on social media—sounds cynical. And, sometimes, it can be. But good work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In order to make a meaningful impact, nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations must engage with an ever-changing world. And they must take great care as they do.
When newsjacking goes wrong
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, HubSpot featured a few examples of newsjacking attempts that overlooked the gravity of a punishing and, in many cases, fatal storm.
“Hurricane Sandy Have You Stuck Inside?” read a headline from a fashion magazine. Beneath the headline, the magazine published an image of nail polish bottles. “Even if you’re working by candlelight, you can still lacquer up in an on-trend fall polish!”
A dating site drew on suggestions from its users to recommend “18 of Our Favorite Hurricane Sandy Date Ideas.” Someone else used a Pinterest page to post photos of “Hurricane Hair.”
In hindsight, nearly all of the attempts to newsjack Hurricane Sandy seem in questionable taste. Even HubSpot revisited its post and clarified its intentions. Rather than offer examples of how companies might newsjack the storm, HubSpot asked its audience to critique those same newsjacking attempts.
“The tone of the post was in poor taste and we apologize for promoting the idea of newsjacking a tragedy,” wrote a HubSpot CMO. “As the marketing community figures out the limits of newsjacking, what do you think? Have any of these gone too far? Are any of them OK?”
Newsjacking backfires when an organization misinterprets its mission or misreads the news. “There will be moments when a story breaks that so perfectly relates to your cause, your mission, and your efforts that the decisions about whether or not to comment on the story, or come out with a story of your own, will be simple,” writes Tricia Mirchandani at CauseVox. “Then there will be days when the events that have garnered the world’s attention seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with you. This is where the work begins.”
When newsjacking goes right
Hurricane Matthew gave organizations another chance to consider how to engage with their audience during a crisis in ways that were responsible, ethical, and mindful. A number of organizations went to their social media platforms to mobilize support for those places and people that needed support after the storm.
The Gates Foundation, which operates a program to help medically underserved communities, informed its audience that cases of cholera could rise in places affected by the storm. UNICEF quantified the number of children likely to be affected by Hurricane Matthew, along with the number of people living in shelters and the percentage of homes destroyed. “In times of disaster, children are among the most vulnerable,” UNICEF tweeted, and included a link to its charitable donations page.
Not all tweets were pleas for donations. CARE, an organization that combats poverty around the world, released a video that explained its efforts to provide support to communities in Haiti after the storm passed. Rather than drum up support, that video reminds the organization’s audience that their previous contributions and engagement has enabled important work.
Newsjacking isn’t exclusively reserved for natural disasters. Plenty of purpose-driven organizations and nonprofits use popular cultural memes to promote their earnest work. Remember our fascination with “#thedress”? A chapter of the Salvation Army used the widespread debate between “black” and “blue” to draw attention to domestic abuse.
The Red Cross newsjacked Sharknado, but worked hard to make sure its intentions were clear and inoffensive. In a blog post, the organization offered rules for surviving a sharknado, but included several disclaimers. “These are fictional rules about a real movie, with some real Red Cross tips snuck in,” reads one. A second disclaimer reiterates the point, and encourages the Red Cross’ audience to familiarize itself with its Red Cross Emergency App, to help them prepare for real emergencies.
Newsjacking offers a double edge. An organization can augment a community’s ability to recover from a crisis or respond to pressing issues. It can use the popularity of a TV show or a GIF or a song to reintroduce its work—without irony or greed or cynicism. Or an organization can do the opposite: overlook the seriousness of a situation, ignore the needs of its audience, and potentially do irreparable harm to its reputation. The key, then, is using discretion and care to engage with breaking news and still offer sincere help.
Most guides to newsjacking offer technical pointers that amount to one key idea: “Plan carefully.” That shouldn’t be overstated. M+R works with a number of nonprofits and offers a simple list of pointers for organizations that want to engage more with breaking news and a changing world. Many of their tips amount to good Twitter etiquette, but there are careful reminders throughout that shouldn’t go overlooked.
“Sure, speed is important—but don’t throw your protocols or rules for social media out the window for the sake of time,” one post suggests. “If you can, have one other person designated to review tweets before they go live.”
Responsible newsjacking also requires that you know your organization’s mission like the back of your hand. If your goal is “Sell nail polish,” then newsjacking a major storm shouldn’t cross your mind. If your goal is to alleviate suffering through constructing shelters or providing access to clean water, then explain how a news event reflects the need for the good work you do.
“Once you know your narrative inside and out, you’ll be able to spend time exploring the connections between your work and the photo that everyone on Twitter is talking about or the top story on every nightly news program,” according to CauseVox. “You’ll be able to use the events of the day to create context for your narrative and your work.”
The good folks at MediaCause assembled this infographic to guide your newsjacking efforts. But allow us to reiterate one of their most crucial tips: “Use good judgment.” And if you’re looking for other instances of nonprofit newsjacking, we recommend scanning Twitter’s official nonprofits channel for examples.