Newsjacking can be an effective, inexpensive marketing PR strategy. It also can backfire, as Papa John’s discovered last week.
Papa John’s founder John Schnatter joined the cultural chorus of deploring NFL players who kneel in protest during the National Anthem before games. In an earnings call, he blamed the protests on his chain’s declining pizza sales. Rivals didn’t hesitate newsjacking Schnatter’s newsjacking.
Domino’s said its pizza sales were up, not down. Pizza Hut said NFL protests had no impact on its sales. DiGiorno Pizza went to the mattresses on Twitter, mocking Papa John’s faltering stock price and claiming in one tweet: “Better Pizza. Better Sales.”
Hopping aboard a trending story, known as newsjacking, is a tried-and-true way to gain attention on the cheap. Schnatter got attention all right, but paved the way for competitors to newsjack at his expense. Good reminder that newsjacking is a lot like chess. You have to think seven moves ahead, not just where to move your pawn.
Newsjackers need to prepare for blowback, a lot like confronting the school bully. If you aren’t up to fighting back, maybe you shouldn’t start the fight, even unintentionally.
DiGiorno has an online reputation for being chippy. When Papa John’s responded to DiGiorno by tweeting: "Frozen pizza = the pizza equivalent of a participation trophy," DiGiorno went for the throat, pointing out previous Papa John’s high-profile delivery gaffes and repeating claims it plagiarized DiGiorno.
One observer noted that if you lack the stomach for a “snarky social media” exchange, you should think twice about getting into one.
In this case, the problem started when Schnatter tied his personal views with his brand’s personality. Whining about a sales drop and blaming it on kneeling NFL players was a neon invitation for a social media bitch slap. Even when you are the official pizza of the NFL, complaining about fan drop-off is like serving jam to ants at a picnic. In addition to swipes by competitors, Papa John’s is fighting off a neo-Nazi website that declared it the official pizza pie of the alt-right.
If there were maxims on social media, one would be that there aren’t any rules. If you jump into the pool, you can’t complain about snakes in the water. Wrestling with reptiles may not be fun, but it can be healthy for a brand if you hold your own. DiGiorno has a chip on its brand shoulder and uses a combative online personality to fend off snark about frozen pizza. Schnatter knows his competitive circle and shouldn’t have been surprised by his rivals teeing off on him.
The bottom line is that newsjacking isn’t a spectator sport. Don’t bring a pizza cutter to a knife fight. If you have a thin crust, maybe you should stick with traditional advertising.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.