How to hijack the news

sheilaWhen I finally started working on the other side of the news aisle for a small struggling private college, I already understood what public relations professionals typically do not understand — when news breaks that’s your chance to hijack the story to make your own organization shine.

My first opportunity to make that happen came with the death of an international cosmetics entrepreneur in 2007. I’m not sure how I made the connection between Dame Anita Roddick and the small struggling private college where I had just been hired as Media Relations Director, but I discovered Roddick had been a Woodrow Willson Visiting Fellow at the school for a month four years earlier.

When I read of her passing I also read about her history as a socially responsible entrepreneur. It turned out Roddick, who founded the skin care company The Body Shop that eventually sold to L’Oreal for $1.14 Billion, was one of the first businesses to focus on the so-called triple bottom line, paying attention to social and environmental issues as well as profits. She sold the company when she knew she was dying from hepatitis C she contracted in a blood transfusion 30-plus years earlier.

I knew from reading the news regularly that socially responsible business practices were becoming more mainstream and I knew I had a story that would at least promote the college’s business program.

Once I had the background and the angle for the story (the triple bottom line), and the name of a professor from the business department I knew was willing to be interviewed, I sent a two sentence email to the local Business Editor, knowing full well she could use it for a business story. And use it she did.

“They worked to create a bachelor’s degree program in business and organizational management centered on social responsibility,” the news editor wrote of the college in the next day’s news story on the front page of the business section. “Roddick endorsed the program and later became a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow at the school, presenting talks on- and off-campus in 2003. She delivered the commencement address in 2004 and received an honorary degree.

“In May, she hosted 20 students and those two faculty members at Amnesty International’s center in London as part of the school’s international study series. The site had benefited from a donation she gave with Elton John toward educating people about human rights, said an associate professor at the college and coordinator of the school’s business and organizational management program. Like any larger-than-life figure, Roddick was an amalgam of contradictions.”

Today, what I did is called hijacking the news. I call it proactive public relations. At the time it just came naturally to me. It wouldn’t occur to me to write something or share something that wasn’t a good story.

I continued to use the same approach and the struggling private college’s enrollment applications experienced a 60 percent increase within 18 months.

And they lived happily every after.

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