When – if ever – is it appropriate to use a tragic event reported in the news to pitch your own (or your client’s) message?

At RH Strategic we’re pretty successful with the tactic of “newsjacking”: jumping on events like a government shutdown or a data breach to insert our clients’ voice into the mix. But when there’s been a catastrophe or loss of life, the bar for what’s appropriate gets a whole lot higher. Still, the fact is that the public is riveted to coverage of these events. To state a truism used by President Obama recently, “If it bleeds, it leads” – a statement that probably says more about us as consumers of news than the media who report it.

My rule of thumb is that if you have a serious point to make or a useful story to tell – something that adds insight to the tragic situation – then it’s appropriate. For example, we inserted our biometrics client into the news cycle following the Boston Marathon bombing. There was speculation about cameras using facial recognition, and our client’s expert commentary got major pick-up, particularly in broadcast media. Until then, our client’s capabilities weren’t known as well, and they added something substantial to the coverage.

We used the tactic again recently following an incident on a D.C. Metro train that left one person dead and several injured after riders were stuck in a tunnel on a car that filled with smoke. News reports began highlighting the failure of firefighters’ radios in the tunnel, and that failure reminded us of FirstNet, the initiative that will deliver unified, ubiquitous wireless broadband communications to the nation’s first responders. A couple of our clients have an interest in seeing FirstNet succeed, so we suggested to one that they jump into the news cycle.

We set out cautiously by proposing that he post a blog about the link between FirstNet and the Metro incident. As it turned out, however, hardly anyone else was making the connection between the new network and the incident, so our client’s voice stood out – in a good way. Several outlets asked if they could reprint his blog (here’s one of them), so he ended up getting more exposure than anticipated. Our client’s social team was also pleased that the blog generated good interaction.

In both cases, RH clients were able to add an intelligent voice in the midst of a tragic situation. There can be a fine line between this kind of interaction and ambulance chasing. My aim is to make sure we never cross it.


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RH Strategic is the PR firm for a hyper-connected world, delivering integrated traditional, digital & social media strategies for technology, healthcare, and public sector markets.