Westboro Baptist Church: Expert Newsjackers

This semester, I am taking Freedom of Expression at Brockport. The class takes a look at the way that the Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted our rights throughout history. Needless to say, class-wide arguments and disagreements happen pretty often.

Last week, we debated a relatively recent case that most of us are probably familiar with. In Snyder v. Phelps et al., the Supreme Court deemed the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church acceptable. If you don’t recognize the name, this is the group that protests the funerals of fallen US soldiers with incredibly bold, at times unthinkable messages. Click this link if you would like to (most likely) be offended and learn more about Westboro Baptist Church.

Before I get too far into this, please understand that I do not agree with the messages that the Westboro Baptist Church proliferates, nor do I condone its actions. However, from a strictly PR perspective, these people are bordering not only on insanity, but also on genius.

During my class’ debate, one of my peers explained her view that the church should not be able to use the funeral of a victim in order to gain publicity. As a PR guy, though, I explained that I have a hard time finding fault with an organization that is really just doing a great job leveraging the media to its advantage.

Think about it. In any organization, we know that we have newsworthy things happening. We send press releases to media, pitch them specific angles and basically persuade them to cover us as much as possible. Although Westboro’s news may disgust and offend the average citizen, that doesn’t exactly make their opinions or tactics less valid.

Best-selling author David Meerman Scott wrote a book recently called Newsjacking. The term is defined as:

“The process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business.”

In other words, when people in PR see a current event that connects to something about their organization, they try to piggy-back on it, using that event to their advantage by pitching the angle to the media.

Isn’t Westboro newsjacking funerals?

I think these people have a very warped view of reality, personally. And I also think they’re possibly the most insensitive group of people ever assembled. But from a content-neutral perspective, these people are getting their views into the public’s eye.

And don’t all of us in PR have the same goal?

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About Jim Mignano

Jim Mignano is a young professional practicing and learning Public Relations in Rochester, NY. He is passionate about the possibilities that digital media provide and loves utilizing new platforms for a variety of functions. James' blog is about people and the technology they use. It's about communication and persuasion... the old and the new ways of doing things... the struggle between sticking to the tried, true recipes and experimenting with intuitive, innovative ideas. It's an extension and reflection of James himself: the convergence of ambition & ability.
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One Response to Westboro Baptist Church: Expert Newsjackers

  1. Mark Trova says:

    While I agree that these people are not doing anything wrong in terms of expanding their coverage, and newsjacking, I think that they should have the morality to at least stay away from fallen soldiers funerals (granted, why I would expect morality from anyone holding a “God hates Fags” sign I don’t understand). What makes this group of people so controversial is their message — not where they promote their message. Promoting a message, as long as it follows the guidelines (ex: staying 1000 feet away from the grave), is completely legal in this country, and I defend that right to the death, as you know.

    However appalling their message, and however sickening their tactics to promote this message, you are absolutely right. It’s PR genius. It’s just too bad their PR is ignorant and uncaring for those people who should be viewed as heroes.

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