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PR experts on newsjacking: A useful practice or unethical marketing?

In a recent 2022 survey from the New Statesman Media Group, newsjacking – brands aligning with current events or cultural issues – was chosen as the least unethical marketing practice, meaning it was far more acceptable than the likes of targeting the vulnerable, clickbait and greenwashing.

The strategy itself is clearly popular, not least among PR companies; after all, it places businesses in big – often global – conversations, finds a new audience and aligns them with events that matter to people.

But there is a flip side. In this increasingly polemic political world, a company runs the risk of alienating as many as it attracts. Is it demonstrating compassion, or simply being insincere and exploitative?

In other words – to newsjack or to not newsjack: That is our question. It’s one we put to a host of PR experts from around the UK.

Andy Barr, CEO and owner of PR and Social Media agency, Newsjacking is only going to get bigger

“Newsjacking has become an essential part of everyday media practice when it comes to public relations and curating stories for journalists, and has quickly become one of the fastest ways to build a brand.

“However, getting newsjacking right is difficult and cutting through the rest of the comments can be really challenging. We see multiple examples, day to day, of media creating a whole story based on newsjacking responses, sometimes even based on just one social media post by a brand, celebrity or organisation.

“With more and more regional media moving to a hyperlocal approach and then using this dominance to deliver their own news discovery tools, newsjacking is only going to get bigger.”

Ava Kelly, digital PR & content strategist at Love Energy Savings says Newsjacking can be equal to months of marketing

“Nailing a newsjacking post can be equal to months of marketing efforts for a business, so it’s a great strategy to keep in mind as a marketer, if and when the news you’re jumping on is relevant to your brand. When newsjacking is done right, you can grab the attention of millions of people, not just your usual target audience. It’s important to newsjack only when it’s the right time and topic for your brand though. It can either be a breakthrough moment for your brand, or it can look forced for the sake of jumping on a trend.”

Charlie Sharpe, account executive at Battenhall: Journalists are increasingly time-poor

“We have built our own tools to spot breaking news on social media in real-time to place the brands that we work with at the heart of topical conversations. Journalists are increasingly time-poor and require authoritative commentary, facts and opinions as fast as possible to meet deadlines.”

Victoria Richardson, director, RMS, a PR and digital marketing agency in Cheshire says it’s noise making and that’s the point

“In the PR world, newsjacking has always been a tool in our tactics box and it’s here to stay. We encourage all our recruits to regularly scan the media for events, news items, legal cases or celebrity stories that our clients can comment on.

“When there isn’t hard business news or a product launch to report, jumping on current trends is a great way to gain exposure for clients and show they have their fingers on the pulse.

“Of course it’s noise making; that’s the point. High profile divorces, for example, provide the perfect platform for our legal clients to give advice about getting prenups in order. I could give loads of cringe-inducing examples where brands have clearly taken things too far, but I’m certainly not offended – most examples make me smile.

“In a media landscape where there’s so much that leaves you in utter despair, most newsjacking examples are a bit of welcome light relief.”

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director at Clearly PR says Newsjacking can be a powerful brand builder

“Brands and businesses are frantically clambering over their competition in a bid to grab the headlines away from their rivals. But to be heard above the increasingly audible noise is getting harder and harder, and newsjacking is often seen as a way to do this – even if just for a fleeting moment.

“The key to doing it well is to do it fast, with taste and sensitivity. If you can have fun with the subject, then do so but for God’s sake make it funny, not cringey. If the subject is serious, proceed with extreme caution; hold back on posting until you have considered if what you plan to say could backfire and damage your brand. There are a plethora of examples of when newsjacking has gone bad and an equal number of times it has boosted the appeal of a brand.

“Overall, though, when done right, newsjacking can be a powerful brand builder if for no other reason than the business being perceived to have a personality or simply care about what is happening.”

Richard Greenwood, senior digital manager at Bolton PR agency, The Audit Lab says brands need to add value to the conversation

“You may think I’m quite biased on this, but yes, I do think newsjacking is useful for brands. Just make sure that within the commentary or story you have to interrupt, your conversation is well thought out, even in the midst of the reactivity and spontaneity.

“Don’t do a tenuous link for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon as this screams ‘Look at me!’ for your brand and can land you in hot water.

“To sum up, it’s about value. If your brand can add value to the conversation and help make people feel something in the newsjacking – whether that’s through a good data piece, expert opinion or some humorous social media engagement – then it works.”

Mimi Brown, head of the entrepreneurs and business at leading independent PR agency The PHA Group says the comment must move the story along

“Newsjacking absolutely has a place as an effective marketing tool, as long as the comment moves the story along, rather than just offering a comment for the sake of it. Current views are there to be challenged or championed by the public and private sector and quick-turnaround news reaction is an effective way to do this and help build a bigger picture of the issues making headlines.

“Voicing your sector’s interests with authority – on trending topics – can proactively change perceptions of a brand, a person or an issue.

“However, it only works on a practical level if there is trust between the organisation, the comms professional and the media contact. And, if mishandled, newsjacking can backfire and damage relationships – especially if a brand is deemed to be simply jumping on the bandwagon to promote a harmful or personal agenda.”

Leigh-Ann Hewer, account manager at Carnsight Communications says you can’t newsjack every story

“The important thing to remember when it comes to newsjacking is that you can’t newsjack every story. You have to know your brand well enough to know what stories will work and what stories won’t. The last thing you want to do is hop on an irrelevant bandwagon too late. Be timely – keep up to date with the news and social media trends. Newsjacking usually fulfils the purpose of being entertaining or educational. Think about what you have to offer with these things in mind and think about that from the perspective of the everyday layman, not your business.

“If you think critically, act in a timely manner and offer educational or entertaining content, newsjacking can be a great way to give your business a little publicity boost.”

Tom Snee, senior content specialist at Nottingham PR agency Cartwright Communications says PR companies bring external clarity

“Newsjacking is an absolutely fundamental part of the media relations toolkit, but it is very much a risk/reward situation. Trying to hook your product or service on every major news story wears thin very quickly and can come across as ambulance chasing, so doing it successfully is about ensuring you have something authentic to add before jumping into the conversation.

“One of the key pieces of added value that a PR company brings is an external clarity – something that may seem like an obvious thing to jump on from your perspective may not pass the eye test for an experienced third party.”