These days, there’s no such thing as slow news. In fact, the notion of experiencing “15 minutes of fame” feels generous in a news climate and scrolling culture that feeds the newest, biggest, most sensational thing.
That said, change is slow. And our quest for racial, economic, gender, and social justice remain eternal in a country steeped in and centered around white supremacy.
Enter “newsjacking,” a public relations tactic that helps racial justice leaders meet the moment by applying their talking points to trending news of the day.
Messengers can use this method to “hijack,” intervene in and recontextualize, emerging stories that are on their way to mass media coverage. Rather than attempting to make your own headlines (via a new report, a new campaign, a break in a case), newsjacking connects your news to something everyone else is already paying attention to.
At Change, I am constantly tracking the news for stories that are 1) relevant to our clients’ issue areas, 2) trendy enough to warrant a multi-day news cycle, and 3) that showcase our client’s unique perspectives and thought leadership. Below you’ll find a checklist for each step of the process, but first, here’s a case study that had uniquely successful and consequential outcomes.
During the summer of 2021, weak poll results emerged that abruptly threatened Gavin Newsom’s recall defeat just a few weeks before the election. Within hours of the morning news cycle, we helped our clients at the California Donor Table (CDT) develop a reaction that moved the news cycle (and eventually Newsom’s campaign itself) to invest more in efforts to reach voters of color in regions of the state the campaign had overlooked.
CDT, an established network of donors committed to shifting political power to progressive communities of color, helped reporters understand that in its overreliance on digital advertising, Newsom’s campaign was neglecting voters of color who are more responsive to door-knocking and phone canvassing. Their analysis and directive, to invest in community organizations doing deep canvassing in regions home to communities of color, was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, KQED, Sacramento Bee, McClatchy DC, and ultimately seems to have shifted the Governor’s campaign. This “newsjacking” response was so effective CalMatters identified it as a turning point in the recall.
Here’s our seven step-process for exercising newsjacking for social change:
- Assemble your team, and talk about the news. Identify teammates in a variety of programmatic areas that you can swap headlines with. Include your lead spokespeople as well as some folks on the frontlines of your issue areas and campaigns. Folks who are active on Twitter and social media are a huge asset in helping to track stories on the rise.
- Prioritize the issues you want to be public about. Three to five is a good starting point. It’s a good practice to revisit these every quarter to adjust for changes.
- Track the news. Set up Google alerts with a selection of terms that represent your field of work. Make sure to broaden your language to mirror the phrasing that mass media uses (for example, while California’s electoral majority is people of color, reporters still use the phrase “minority voters;” criminal justice leaders may want to track articles about “crime” and “law and order.”) You can also track organizations and leaders working in a similar space to notice when other leaders are newsjacking successfully. Bonus: if your organization uses Slack, you can divert Google alerts to group channels. Products from Meltwater and Cision are also available to track and distribute headlines, and can produce reports on those trends over time.
- Connect the dots. When you see a story that reminds you of your work, make an argument that connects the dots between your point of view and the news. This is a trial and error process; you’ll know when your angle has legs because it will be simple and convincing.
- Make journalists an offer they can’t refuse. To convert your argument into an offering to a reporter, decide on the best vehicle of information (a soundbite, an interview, data, op-ed) and package that offering with all the information they need. Reporters are usually looking for: 1) timeliness, 2) originality (a unique point of view that hasn’t already been captured), 3) specificity, and 4) credibility.
- Pitch it. With these elements, you can write a brief email pitch (no more than five sentences) to a group of reporters. We recommend sharing with a mix of reporters who have covered your organization in the past, as well as those new to you who are covering the issue at hand. The most important thing to do when you’re pitching is to mention the newsjacking topic in the subject line, and highlight your most exciting elements. For example, in CDT’s case we synthesized our critique and used key terms with, “Dems can’t scapegoat people of color for Newsom polls.”
- Follow up. Reporters get a lot of emails – a quick line – “Checking in, what do you think?” one day later will help get your email seen. Don’t be discouraged if folks don’t respond. Chances are, a few will remember you for bringing them a smart source, and come back to you when another related issue arises.
This is a cycle and may need to be practiced a few times before it gets traction. If you’re interested in partnering with our team to support your narrative change efforts through media relations, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how we can partner with you.