The Case for Caution When Mixing Content Marketing With Current Events

Before becoming a content marketer, I worked in PR, and talking clients out of bad decisions was an important part of my job. One of the worst arguments I ever had with a client was in the wake of a heavily publicized tragedy.

The client, a director of sales at an upscale, high-traffic hotel, thought it would be a good idea to offer a special room rate for rescue workers and family members drawn to the area by the event, which had gained worldwide attention. He wanted to heavily publicize the rate through PR and advertising (social media was not yet considered a marketing tool).

I outright refused to promote it, and my boss backed me up.

That tragedy was 9/11, and the hotel was in a neighboring state, just a short drive or train ride from the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center.

Never a shortage of material

The presidential race, a new video game everyone is playing, an attempted military coup in Turkey, the Brexit vote, the deaths of Prince and David Bowie, mass killings at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando and at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice — there’s certainly no lack of attention-grabbing current events this year.

The buzz in the air may tempt content marketers to do or say something that will associate their brands with all that free awareness. In some situations, “newsjacking” — tying your brand’s marketing message to a breaking news story — doesn’t come across as unsavory. For example, a financial advisor could talk about the intricacies of cross-border planning in the context of the impending Brexit.

Other times, it’s best to remain silent. Do you know when to act or speak and when not to?

The value of being current

The most compelling case for incorporating current events into your content marketing is also the most obvious: they’re current. By commenting/acting on current events, your brand appears savvy and hip among consumers. You come across as engaged, intelligent and on the same page as they are because you’re paying attention to the current events they care about.

Today’s consumer demands a personalized experience and relevant content, regardless of what you’re selling. Incorporating current events into your content marketing illustrates you understand consumers’ need for meaningful, useful content.

Finally, hitching your brand’s marketing message to the coat tails of a big breaking story can potentially carry it farther than if you were to simply promote it through traditional channels.

Compounding tragedy

However, when the current event grabbing global attention is a tragedy, content marketers should consider some critical questions, including what is the right thing to do.

My (probably) well-intentioned, but (totally) misguided hotel client failed to consider the right thing in deciding to offer the Heroes of Ground Zero and bereaved families a “special rate” when his competitors were giving them free rooms. If he’d promoted the special rate as he wanted to, he’d have been vilified at best and asked to resign at worst.

Sadly, I can point to plenty of recent events in which brands should have remained silent and didn’t. Missteps not only harm a brand, but they can also add to the emotional suffering of victims, their loved ones and members of the public who are following the story.

On the other hand, doing the right thing can build your brand’s prestige in the eyes of socially aware and marketing-savvy consumers. For example, social media response was largely positive to JetBlue’s offer to fly the families of Pulse victims to Orlando for free, and Orlando Chick-fil-A restaurants providing free food at blood drives for the shooting victims. By contrast, the numerous social media posts by brands that did nothing more than express sympathy probably had little impact on their image — for good or ill.

How to know the difference

When is it OK to newsjack a current event? When is it acceptable, or even beneficial, to tie your brand to a well-publicized tragedy?

Before generating content of any kind around a current event, content marketers should consider these questions:

  • Does the brand have a legitimate connection to the event? JetBlue flies to Orlando. Chick-fil-A has restaurants there. Columbia Records, David Bowie’s record label, tweeted a tribute when he died. Corvette’s salute to Prince brilliantly tied its tribute to one of his most famous songs — “Little Red Corvette.” These brands legitimately had a connection to the events they were acting/commenting on. When a brand has no established tie to an event, its commentary can come across as self-serving at best and downright offensive at worst.
  • Does the brand have something of value to add? The financial advisors with expertise in cross-border planning can offer practical insight and advice to Brexit-fearing Americans with investments or assets in the U.K. Corvette tugged at the heart strings and evoked a fond memory during a time of mourning. JetBlue’s actions made a financial difference for people already suffering a terrible loss. If your current-event-inspired content will benefit consumers in some way, your brand may have something of value to offer. If it only serves your brand, don’t do it.
  • Is the timing right? Content generated too long after a positive or neutral event will lose its currency; the time to act is immediately following or during the event. If your brand can’t produce something relevant and valuable immediately, don’t do it at all. Coming to the party late can make your brand look even worse than not showing up at all. Conversely, if your brand doesn’t have anything of value to offer during a tragedy, don’t say anything at all for at least a day. In the turmoil immediately following a tragedy, even a well-meaning tweet of sympathy can be taken the wrong way; continuing with business as usual by sending out automated digital marketing content can be seen as downright disrespectful.

Content marketers need to proceed with caution when incorporating current events into content marketing. When it’s done well, at the right time and for the right reasons, newsjacking can be a great way to gain free publicity for your brand. But bungle your mixture of content marketing and current events, and you risk creating consumer derision that can move around the world as quickly and forcefully as the impact of the event itself.

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