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Advice From a PR Firm: What to Do During a Breaking News Event

April 26, 2013 Bradford Group Administrator

Last week was trying for all Americans—especially those in Boston and West, Texas. For PR firms, breaking news events that stall the news cycle like the
2525886032_91120461f1marathon bombing and fertilizer plant explosion did last week require quick, compassioned thinking—there’s nothing more insensitive than pitching an irrelevant story idea to individuals reporting on the wake of a tragedy. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Boston, Nashville or any small town in-between, reporters everywhere are focused on hard news.


Top public relations firms know that when breaking news happens, their job changes. We’ve seen tragedies happen too often in the last year. Hanging on to the empathy caused by these instances can help guide you through the post-event process.


Every breaking news story goes through a cycle, and each stage is different for public relations firms. Immediately after the story breaks, PR firms should:


  • Stop all irrelevant story pitches. Public relations firms are constantly talking to the media. We are emailing, calling and tweeting at reporters every day. That stops when breaking news hits. You don’t want to pitch a fluffy feature story when the entire country—especially reporters—is watching law enforcement chase a terrorist. Hold off on those pitches until the news cycle returns to its normal behavior.
  • Know who you are pitching. A PR firm should know its outlet. For example, reporters in Boston stayed focused on the marathon bombings longer than the Nashville media. Slowly return to your normal pitches based on which reporters you are targeting. If the reporter you are going to pitch has started writing non-breaking news stories again, you can resume pitching.
  • Cancel all scheduled social media posts. The last thing a brand wants during a terrorist attack is to be tweeting about a new marketing campaign. Most public relations firms schedule Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn posts in advance for their clients and their own business. As soon as breaking news takes place, PR firms should review all posts for the next couple of days. Offering thoughts and prayers for the victims and families or posting relevant news is OK, but hold off on any other posts until the initial hard news has died down.


The Boston marathon bombings were unique in that news continued to break throughout the week. The shock of the bombings on Monday was followed by a call for help in identifying the suspects and culminated in a daylong chase on Friday.


Add in the unexpected explosion in West, Texas, and the week was basically a wash for soft pitches. The news has died down this week, but there are still some points to consider a week after a breaking news event.


  • Be more aware of what you are pitching. The editor of Real Simple (@kvanogtrop) magazine tweeted this on Tuesday: “Got an email from a PR person this morning, pitching a new line of French-made pressure cookers, ‘safer and easier than ever!’  Really?!?”
    Obviously that PR firm did not think about how the pitch related to the marathon bombing. Even a week later, people were still enthralled in all things Boston, which means they will make connections to it with even the slightest hook. That’s especially true for reporters, who are paid to make those connections. In this case, it didn’t lead to bad press for the client, but the PR firm certainly didn’t get the media hit that it wanted.
  • Consider how your clients relate. Obviously you don’t want to take advantage of an awful situation, but depending on the types of clients a public relations firm has, they could be great sources for reporters.
    A PR firm should look at its client list and expertise to see if they have anything valuable to add to the story. Providing a different angle that hooks into the breaking news is a great way to help reporters and get coverage.
    Think about the reporters who don’t typically cover breaking news. Would a small business reporter be interested in a story about crisis plans for small businesses? Can you relate the news to trade magazines in your industry? Could you localize the story for your client’s hometown? This gives public relations firms a chance to use the creativity they are known for.


Top PR firms know that cultivating and maintaining good relationships with reporters is critical to securing prime media coverage. How you handle a breaking news event can make or break that relationship.


Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe

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