#DebateWithBernie – A successful example of Social “Newsjacking”

At SXSW in 2012, David Meerman Scott gave a talk titled “Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.” Meerman Scott’s talk and book of the same name encourages companies to produce content such as blog posts or videos that coincide with a big media event as a method of both gaining additional exposure for your brand and keeping your brand relevant. One political example Meerman Scott shares in his talk was Obama’s Super Tuesday Press Conference, which stole attention away from the Republican Primary in 2012. The most well-known example of newsjacking in marketing in recent years would be Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” tweet which dominated social media during the 2013 Super Bowl power-outage. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of newsjacking, Hubspot posted a great summary titled The Inbound Marketer’s Complete Guide to Newsjacking.

One person who is certainly aware of this newsjacking tactic is Kenneth Pennington, the Digital Director for Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. Last week I tweeted out an NPR article onto the #IS6621 Twitter feed that covered the Sander’s campaigns successful newsjack on Twitter during the second Republican President Debate. As during the first Republican Debate, Sanders watched the event with Pennington and the two Live Tweeted from the Senator’s account using the hashtag #DebateWithBernie. Our classmate Laura replied to my tweet, sharing that Pennington is only 24 years old. After learning that I read a bit more about Pennington, which inspired me to dive into this topic more with this blog post. Perhaps Pennington’s age should not be such a surprise to me, as the Senator’s campaign is clearly familiar with the digital reality of the American political landscape. From CNN I was directed to Sander’s grassroot subreddit where I read a Reddit discussion that showed the true success of Bernie’s newsjacking—he gained more followers than any of the Republican candidates who were on stage for the debate (by almost double).

What separates this successful newsjacking from others that seem forced and fail (parodied perfectly by The Onion) is the authenticity of the Senator’s comments given the context of the event. Meerman Scott writes that successful newsjacking needs “to balance the need to be quick and bold with the imperative to be in tune.” The #DebateWithBernie hashtag worked because Pennington knew there would be large Liberal-minded audience logged on Twitter during the debates that would be in tune with Sander’s message. The NPR article notes that Senator Sander’s had two of the three most retweeted posts from candidates Tuesday evening. By tapping into this audience in real-time and getting them to share his content, the Senator was able to expand his reach to a wider swath of Twitter’s actively-engaged users.

There is a key lesson here for Digital Brand Managers in any industry attempting to ride the wave of a big news story that they are not organically a part of. Following Meerman Scott’s advice of balancing being quick with being in tune is critical before making a post to inject your brand into a conversation. If you make a post that doesn’t resonate with your intended audience, your brand is at risk of being seen as so out of tune that the event will actually end up making a negative impact. Business2Community has a great blog post that highlights newsjacking attempts that have gone wrong. I am curious if other classmates (or any other readers) can think of any major newsjacking attempts which stand out for being either particularly effective or going horribly wrong. Please comment with any examples below, and share what brand strategy lessons you can take away.


  1. Hi John,

    I enjoyed learning more about how important it is for companies to “Newsjack” and how this is impacting the political campaign. It was interesting to read how thought leader Hubspot believes this strategy should be executed. I think the most important takeaway is that the execution must be quick but accurate. Before reading the Hubspot piece (and seeing the Lego figures), The Lego Group came to mind as a company that is quick to react and is very nimble on social media platforms. For example, in May when the royal baby was born, Lego recognized this as important news for their customers and quickly assembled relevant content to be part of this event. While this post was a one time event (unlike the #DebatewithBernie dialogue) it shows how Lego takes advantage of relevant news to engage with their loyal customer base who are often very involved in new product design and development.


    I look forward to continuing to monitor how candidates are using social media platforms throughout the campaign to quickly engage and connect with their community.

    – Laura/@lak_yaks

    Ps – thanks for the shoutout in your blog:)

    1. Thanks for sharing the Lego Tweet — great example of a well-received newsjack

  2. Great post John! And you beat me to the same blogging idea for today!(Grrrrrrrr) I agree with what Laura said above: if brands want to ride the waves of the current news successfully, it’s crucial for the execution to be on point and timely. To be able to achieve this, the brand has to have a powerful marketing team that is hyper active, resourceful and responsive – a luxury not all companies can afford. Reflecting on my social media experiences in China, what I do think of when it comes to “newsjacking” or “trendjacking” are the majority of brands’ clumsy efforts to jump on the band wagon by inserting trending keywords into their next Weibo ( Chinese Twitter) postings. It has become such a popular tactic that I suspect there is a FOMO phenomenon developing amongst brands as well. However, I personally have grown wary of such effort as they appear rather robotic to me. We’ve just covered this in our discussion from the previous class – “procedural effort vs strategic effort”. I feel that most brands’ “trendjacking”effort in China (both domestic and international brands) can be considered procedural at this point – let’s see what’s trending and then make a promotional post out of it. The timely factor would normally lead to a lack of quality or strategic thinking, and the contents they produce do not necessarily improve customer’s brand perception. I think this is something social media managers of brands need to be cautious of – unless you can be the first to ride the wave with a genius idea, it might be worthwhile to save the resource for more coherent efforts that align with your brand’s strategy.

    1. Sorry to beat you to posting — benefit of doing the writing a day early, I suppose! I definitely agree with your feeling of cautiousness. I don’t think brands need to be hiring teams of newsjackers ready to jump on a story around the clock. Many of the most successful examples fall into the “right place, right time” category — and I agree with you that if that genius idea is not there, it is definitely smart to save your resources. Thanks for commenting

  3. I really have noticed Sanders has an incredible presence and resonates more among us young people than any other candidate, including Democrats and Republicans who are younger than him. However, what I find interesting about his ability to newsjack, along with Obama’s in 2012, is the whole aspect and concept that age of a candidate has a major part to play in relating to young people. I think as long as you deliver content that embodies what young people want to hear, with the right guidance at least from someone our age, it becomes much easier to take over the internet during major news events. For the GOP, the debates have become a mockery due to the insane amount of candidates on the stage at once and the fiery remarks directed at each other. In order to counter Bernie’s attempts at newsjacking, which I think he will be able to do again and again if nothing changes, the GOP needs to start pressuring certain candidates to leave this race and for the comments on the stage to be respectable, refined, and honest (in contrast to personal attacks that certain candidates seem to consistently resort to).

    1. Ben — I agree with your assessment that it is all about delivering the right content (This gets to Meerman Scott’s point about being “in tune”). Bernie’s message is certainly getting the attention of the millennial generation online. However, internet shares cannot elect someone President. In order for the Senator’s appeal to young people to pay off, his political revolution will need to encourage millions of young Americans to register to vote for the first time (in the Primary, specifically). We will have to wait and see if the enthusiasm will carry over from social media to the voting booths. Thanks for commenting

  4. Great post John! Relevant, smart, substantive, and much more. First read of the evening!

    I am big fan of the newsjacking strategy. It really shows which digital marketers get it. Clearly the Sanders Campaign team has done an excellent job of this and their strategy has shown that it can galvanize the Twitter user base. I wonder how the GOP candidates will leverage social media… and if they can be effective?

    1. Thank you Eric! I am also curious to see how the GOP handles social media, particularly during the upcoming Democratic Presidential Debate. Will be interesting to see who will be live-tweeting and if their social media teams can generate enthusiasm. Thanks for commenting

  5. The next 15 months of the US Presidential election cycle will be a Newsjacking testbed. I just love watching this stuff unfold. Did you see the Trump Insult Generator? Ha! http://time.com/3966291/donald-trump-insult-generator/

    John, Thanks for writing about Newsjacking and mentioning me.


    1. David, I appreciate your comment! That insult generator may come in handy

  6. Good read, John. One thing not fully explored in the commentary on Bernie Sanders’ twitter news jack is how difficult it is to actually execute what he did. His posts, from the coverage I read, were incredibly quick and served as an instant response to people listening to/watching the debate and simultaneously watching his Twitter feed. Bernie Sanders, whether you agree with his politics or not, is a brilliant guy. I’m not sure many other politicians could come up with the quality and quantity of commentary he did as fast as he did.

    That might be the x-factor in any newsjacking attempt: you have to be able to add meaningful content quickly. Most people and/or organizations simply aren’t capable of moving that quickly and still putting out a coherent message.

    One other thing I’m surprised hasn’t happened yet is a primary debate that leverages social media more. Let people crowdsource questions – and most importantly – hold candidates accountable to give actual answers via some Twitter feedback system. That might be an idealistic goal, since even respected debate “moderators” don’t actually make candidates answer questions, but a guy can dream…

    1. Jonah, thanks for the comment. I would love to see a dynamic debate where the candidates have to respond to the most popular questions in real time… Perhaps for the 2020 election this will be possible.

  7. Great post. Love all the links. Maybe consider adding some images going forward (they’re easy to get and do add to the post). Re: newsjacking, a key feature is to make sure companies know what stories they are jacking. There have been many examples of companies causing lots of damage to their brand by not researching first and creating inappropriate placements.

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