Friday, November 2, 2012

"Newsjacking" Highlights the Power and the Limitations of Social Media

As Hurricane Sandy approached land last week, Sears knew there would be demand for many of its products, from generators to chain saws.  The retailer has seen this before during times of natural disaster.

Only this time, the company’s marketing people decided to do some storm preparedness of their own. They created a special Web page that allowed for easier one-stop-shopping for anyone taking measures to prepare for the impact of the hurricane, or further inland, the “super storm.”

The company then used Twitter as part of its effort to create awareness of its Web page and its position as a supplier of storm preparedness and recovery items.

Here’s what the company’s official Tweet said:

“Did Hurricane Sandy affect your city? Get your generators, air mattresses & more in one place:  #HurricaneSandy

In a pre-social media world, Sears may have advertised this on TV and perhaps radio.  If there was time, it may have taken out newspaper ads, but it wouldn’t have “tweeted” this.  And most likely, it would not have caused concern if the ads were of the same general tone.

But in today’s social media environment, the company’s tweet sparked backlash against Sears by those on social media accusing the company of “newsjacking.”  This is a relatively new term that’s based on the idea that if a person or company tries to use a major news event for personal or corporate gain, it’s guilty of newsjacking.

There were some pretty extreme examples of this around Hurricane Sandy.  One apparel retailer tried to use social media to promote a discount on products over the Internet for those who may suffer “boredom” as the hurricane wears on. Obviously, social media has done nothing to inhibit insensitivity. 

To be sure, Sears’ situation was different.  For many decades, the retailer has been a major resource for just the kind of tools and supplies people need during times of natural disaster.  It could easily be argued that the company was doing people a great service by creating awareness of its products, and by offering discounts on those products, which it did.

But Sears came under fire in social media on accusations of trying to use the storm on grounds of “corporate greed.”  The comments were all over the board, some in favor of Sears, and some which complained of the timing and nature of the content.  Quite a few believed the company should have put a moratorium on advertising or even given the products away.

From a PR standpoint, there are a couple of issues going on here that need to be addressed.  One is the whole notion of “newsjacking.”  Another is whether Sears deserved the social media backlash. 

“Newsjacking” is a new term for a very, very old idea.  The whole PR industry is based in large part on the idea that companies, organizations and individuals find a way to tie their messages and themes into the current events of the day. This is how they achieve relevance, and you can’t do effective PR without it.  The key is to do it ethically, credibly and tastefully.

It would appear that those who live their lives on social media are discovering for the first time  the issues we’ve dealt with in PR for many decades.  They’re conjuring up new terms that also bring with them value-judgments, oftentimes based on an altruistic worldview, devoid of a deep understanding of the societal value of business, commerce and industry. 

In the social media world, most all newsjacking is bad, particularly if there is a business component to it because that would suggest corporate greed. 

On the other hand, because of the lightning speed and very informal systems and tone of social media, examples of tastelessness have escalated with the numbers of social media users.  So there is some basis for skepticism on the motives of corporate social media users.  It is perhaps for this reason that Sears almost unknowingly put a social media target on its back.

As the water gets pumped out of the New York subway system, and as New Jersey begins the long rebuilding process in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those of us in PR and social media are left with a number of issues.  We need to come to terms with the possibility that some social media initiatives tied to current events could lead to accusations of newsjacking.  Companies should have pretty clear communications strategies and policies so that when companies venture into the world of breaking news, they do so with clarity on their best of intentions. 

At the same time, the social media business, as fragmented as it is needs its leadership to step up and start to provide a higher level of professional standards.  The current mindset in social media is to let the tail wag the dog.  Comments are largely un-moderated.  Well organized social media mobs tend to make the most noise and rule.  As a result, there has emerged a social media groupthink on Twitter and Facebook. 

Corporate interests tend to be the group’s easiest and most common targets.  Social media activists know that the traditional media these days gives unusual weight to the volume of tweets as opposed to the legitimacy of the comments or concerns on Twitter, for instance.  You can’t expect the users of social media to be attracted to or adhere to higher standards of behavior on social media.

But the time may now be right for the social media discipline to begin to self-police and establish its own more professional standards for the management of social media sites and pages.  This would not be unlike the standards and codes we adhere to in the public relations and journalism professions.

1 comment:

  1. While there have been things similar to Newsjacking for years, what changed recently is that Google now indexes in real-time. That allow a timely blog post to be seen by journalists (and consumers) as they search for more information on a topic. Real-time is the key here. Yet nearly all PR people are in campaign mode rather than real-time mode, so those like us who understand newsjacking have an advantage.