News jacking: from traditional approaches to new insights with Facebook Live

The United Airlines public relations debacle has been high profile news this last week. For those who may have missed it (not sure how that is even possible), United had a passenger removed forcibly from an overbooked flight, and the mistreatment was captured on video, which later went viral online, then received significant earned media coverage. The subsequent fall out as the incident echoed through various missteps in damage control media relations has continued to play out both through social media channels and earned media coverage throughout the week. Let’s just put it this way, it has not been a good week to own United Airlines stock.

But rather then ruminate on the good, the bad and the ugly around this story, or what should have been done from a PR perspective, I want to zero in on the concept of “news jacking” and how that played out for those astute enough to see the opportunity. News jacking is the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story and generating tons of media coverage and social media engagement.

Whenever there is a public relations nightmare that captures attention on a large scale like this, you can count on three things happening:

  • Experts jumping in to explain or analyze it
  • A creative spin on the news that positions a competitor in a clever way
  • Marginally related posts using #UnitedAirlines type hashtags to gain increased visibility

Within 24hours, a meme had appeared for Southwest Airlines, declaring, “We beat the competition, no you.” Not withstanding the unfortunate circumstances involved, it’s pretty hard to not at least laugh at that one as it made its way around Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

A colleague of mine, Grant Ainsley, a media trainer out of Edmonton, was interviewed on Bloomberg TV about his observations on how United should have responded, and how others could avoid such perils in the future. I’m sure Grant was one of many experts who were able to position themselves as experts in response. Being known by media in advance is certainly helpful, as is being articulate and knowledgeable, but often having a unique insight, or being quick to contact is the key with news jacking. You know the media will be covering the piece, and the fine art of the news jack allows you to go along for the ride with the widespread reach to their audience.

But I want to introduce to you a totally new “news jack” approach, which admittedly I didn’t even consider as a news jack at the time, since it involved a Facebook Live broadcast. It’s only in hindsight, through Google analytics that I’ve realized the power involved.

First up a bit of a timeline on the United story. The original incident took place last Sunday evening when a video was posted of the passenger being dragged off the plane by authorities. It was initially shared on Twitter, then Facebook, and then updated on Twitter again. It started to take off on social media that evening, and by Monday morning several news outlets were working on the story, but there was little coverage that had emerged in traditional media just yet. So it was Monday morning at 11:55am that I received a notification on Facebook that Shep Hyken was going live. Shep is customer service expert, well-known speaker, and has a huge following as an international speaker and advisor to top Fortune 500 companies. He’s a big league guy. But I also consider Shep a friend, and I had just seen him the previous week down in San Diego at Social Media Marketing World. In fact I had captured a photo of him on stage for an impromptu guitar solo at the event that I Tweeted out, forming the basis of conversation over drinks later that evening. So when I saw Shep go live, like any other highly distracted individual I jumped into the feed. It was so early on, I did not know the United story yet and hadn’t seen the video. But I got engaged in his observations and what others were commenting on in the feed. After bantering a few fun comments about the guitar lamp in the background of his live video, I added some comments of my own about the power of live video especially with folks who have a large broadcast audience these day. It had taken social media complaints to a whole new level. After some more engagement, I decided to refer to an article I had written about a Westjet pilot delivering pizza to stranded Air Canada passengers, (a piece you can link to here) and how that had been a positive example of social media for an airline. There was some further engagement around that, then Shep ended the broadcast and I went back to my work.

But it was later as I heard about the United story gaining traction that I revisited Shep’s feed and realized that within 24 hours he had had 45,000 views, 334 reactions and 67 shares. That’s when the light went on that Shep and his Facebook live feed were actually a media company in the non-traditional sense, and I unintentionally had news jacked the feed. Because there had been so much engagement around my input, it had remained in the top comments. And when I visited Google analytics later this week, I could see a huge spike in traffic on April 10, leading in from Facebook. Further proof that it had been effective was a spike in enews subscribers this week, since the original Westjet/Air Canada piece contained a subscribe button within the copy. It was all quite unintentional, since at the time I simply saw it as adding value to the conversation. But it certainly allows us to observe some interesting opportunities. Three caveats with a Facebook Live news jack are:


1. They have to have a substantial following.

2. You have to know the person well.

3. You have to be adding value to the conversation.

Done with genuine good intention (and I think that’s absolutely necessary), I think there is tremendous value in this new “news jacking” technique, since Facebook is favouring live video in its algorithms, and the notification process is guaranteed to pull in viewers when someone has a large following. Plus you can count on the Facebook Live producer to push the broadcast out on other channels to increase the replay views and comments. And a live video that is receiving significant engagement will also remain higher and be favoured in the feed with the new algorithms, so your interaction is actually also helping the broadcaster. Shep published an article in Forbes on Saturday that is a pretty solid analysis of the whole fiasco, and why good customer service in the age of social needs to be a huge part of marketing efforts these days. It’s worth a read.

So the question to ask yourself might be: Who do I know well with a large following who uses Facebook live? How might I add value the next time they go live? I’d suggest simply watching a few first, but being ready when the opportunity seems right. And please only add value. Do not sell. This is totally relationship based, and must be honored as such. Think of it the same way you would a traditional media appearance, except that you are tagging along. You are not the main event. And also be sure to reciprocate, by sharing the broadcast out on your channels, or linking to additional content by the broadcaster later that will further grow their audience. This technique can only work if you consciously honor established relationships.

What are your thoughts on all this? What other opportunities might there be for non-traditional news jacking out there?

Mary Charleson

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