Newsjacking in the midst of tragedy

November 2015

    In today’s ever more cluttered advertising environment, brands are constantly looking for ways to achieve cut through for their messages.

    One of the most effective tactics adopted by brands  to achieve this goal of late, has been the practice of newsjacking, with Nandos being South Africa’s most consistantly celebrated protagonist of this very delicate practice.

    For the uninitiated newsjacking is essentially the art of injecting your brand  message into a breaking news story with the objective of generating media coverage and social media engagement, or more succinctly put, “The process of leveraging trending news to elevate your brand.”

    When done right, the pay off can be lots of eyeballs and positive sentiment for your brand, however, as with most things, there is an equal and opposite downside for brands that get it wrong.

    This approach is even more fraught with risk in the midst of an unfolding tragedy and the risk to any brand’s reputation can be very serious.

    Take for example this rather tasteless and tone deaf tweet from Urban Outfitters during Huricane Sandy in 2012. In the midst of the destruction caused by the storm, they not only trivialised a very serious and tragic event, but also attempted to benefit financially of people’s plight. This was a clear example of how not to do it.

    urban Outfit


    Or when Kenneth Cole trivialised the suffering of many people in Egypt during the revolution, with this tactless post on Twitter, that one can only assume was an ill advised attempt at humour.



    Both these brands paid the price, with both experiencing a significant amount of backlash from on social media and negative news stories being written about their efforts by some media outlets, forcing them to back track and issue apolgies for their respective faux pas.

    In Johannesburg we recently witnnessed a tragic accident when the temporary bridge near the Grayston Drive Bridge over the M1 collapsed, resulting in two deaths and 23 people being injured.

    As a result of the accident, the M1,  a major highway in Johannesburg, used by tens of thousands of motorists every day was closed, causing major traffic jams in and around the Sandton CBD as motorists were forced to find alternative routes to their desitinations.

    The accident also resulted in a huge amount of media coverage, both traditional  and on online media, with the news trending on Twitter for some time.

    Now ordinarily, this would be fairly trecherous ground for any company to try and leverage for its brand, however one brand, in conjuction with the City of Johannesburg did exactly that.

    Using its unique offering and online footprint to offer a truly valuable service, Uber took to Twitter and it’s mobile app to offer free rides for people in and around Sandton to and from Gautrain stations in an effort to relieve some of the traffic congestion caused by the bridge collapse.

    The tweet, promoting the initiative received 432 Retweets and 151 favourites and a significant amount of goodwill.


    What Uber demonstrated through their actions, was that with the correct message that offers a truly useful service or solution that is not just opportunistic, brands can garner a great deal of positive sentiment.

    We’ve summarised a few lessons to be taken from these examples:

    The first being that brands who rush headlong into a trending news story without understanding the context, nuances and tone of the story and without adding anything of benefit to the intended audience, can find their actions causing serious damage to their brand’s integrity and reputation.

    On the other hand, in similar circumstances, when brands take the time to understand the story and what the major issues are with the addition of making the decision to get involved in the story based on whether their brand is able to add something truly beneficial in an authentic manner, can be a great way for your brand to achieve that desired break through and generate significant positive impact .

    Sifiso Mazibuko, Social Media and Content Marketing Director