Commentary

Was Sending That Prince-Themed Email After His Surprise Death A Wise Move?

"To celebrate Prince we've marked down a collection of items just as striking as he was."

Really? The retailer that used Prince’s death to promote a discounted purple handbag clearly didn’t think through that approach. Or, it lacked a process to deal with such events, or both.

Putting items on sale to commemorate a death was probably one of the most commercially opportunistic of all the "newsjacking" content I saw in the days following Prince's sudden death in April.

Newsjacking, or "news hijacking," is the time-honored practice of hitching your brand to news events, whether they're anticipated – happy Cinco de Mayo, by the way – or unplanned like weather disasters, sports events or political developments.

Both can tap into a collective consciousness, which is why they're so appealing for marketing campaigns.

Prince versus Earth Day

We saw both kinds in the space of just 24 hours last month, first with Prince's shocking death on April 21 and then the celebration of Earth Day on April 22.

None of the Earth Day emails I received flirted with tastelessness like the retailer I mentioned above, though a few brands' connection to the green movement seemed a bit iffy at best.

Set up an action plan for rapid responses

While April Fool’s Day and Mother’s Day are “events” known in advance, a devastating earthquake, the outcome of a championship game or unexpected death of a public figure isn’t. But, you do know that events like these will occur often throughout the year. How should you respond? Or, should you?

If you already have a plan for responding to email mistakes, you probably could adapt that process for managing a news-related response as well.

6 questions to plan your email response

News ages fast. Responding to an event likely requires shortcuts in your normal creative and approval processes. Whether your email team takes the lead or is just a participant in a wider response, consider these six questions:

1. Should we respond?  Know the potential risks and rewards. Your news-influenced message could resonate with your audience, build up brand engagement and possibly generate goodwill. Or, it could damage your credibility, brand equity and reputation.

2. How do we respond? Take time to determine whether to issue a simple message (like Chevrolet’s "Little Red Corvette" newspaper ads) or take a more commercial or brand-centered approach, such as promoting emergency supplies as a huge snowstorm approaches. Would people interpret your message as helpful and serving a need, or as commercial opportunism?

3. What is our connection to the event? Consider whether the event fits your brand essence or brand equity. The Chevrolet ad was brilliant because Prince himself created the connection to the brand through his song.

4. What is the potential risk of responding? Brainstorm with your agencies and other departments to understand the wide range of possible customer and stakeholder responses. What's the risk of igniting a customer backlash or merciless criticism in social media?

5. Which channels should we use to respond, and should we include email? As I noted in my column on handling email mistakes, social media can broadcast the news quickly if necessary, while email can follow up with details. Is email the primary channel or one among many? What is its role in the mix?

6. How should we adjust our workflow to respond to an emergency or breaking news story?  You could set up a special committee for quick responses. Or, the email team might simply participate on a broader communications task force.

  • Identify whom to include from your department and those outside marketing, such as IT and customer support.
  • Consider whether to pull in your creative agency or do the work in-house.
  • Identify who can issue a "go/no-go" decision on the fly: your CEO, CMO, VP of corporate communications, or another?
  • Keep customer support, PR and social media teams in the loop, and provide scripts that address potential negative responses to your emails.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

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