Richard Dukas
Richard Dukas

There’s a fine line between newsjacking and taking advantage, aka ambulance chasing.

Our job as PR professionals is to tread it carefully. The former is a term for quickly hopping on a breaking story to offer an expert who can shed some light on some aspect of it. If done right, you’ve helped a news organization produce well-informed reporting. Everyone wins.

In any career, from law to medicine to PR, chasing ambulances figuratively or literally means exploiting a bad situation for personal gain. Not a good look, and it likely won’t work in your favor.

When a tragedy like the recent Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore happens, everyone’s immediate concern should be for the victims and their families. There is no such thing as a small death toll. One life is too many.

At the same time, the wider impact on society can’t be ignored: in this case, it was the supply chain and logistical impact in the region, with far broader implications for the movement of coal and other commodities. This comes on the heels of lingering pandemic disruption, labor shortages and shipping detours due to Red Sea attacks. It’s not just about profits but about making sure vital goods—including food, fuel and medicine—get where they need to go.

Several major news organizations were already covering the shipping repercussions even while the search and rescue operations continued as the sun rose on March 26. After securing some talking points, we were able to offer several media organizations a transportation expert to assess the impact.

The resulting coverage noted how the economic impact, as our expert put it, “pales in comparison to the human toll,” while discussing how the temporary closing of Baltimore’s port and indefinite loss of the bridge and connected highway impacts traffic, transportation, the environment and general quality of life in the region.

When looking at similar situations and pitching reporters and producers, here are a few tips for treading the above-mentioned line of sensitivity:

  • Acknowledge the tragedy: Show your humanity by adding a heartfelt note about mourning the victims.
  • Check your gut: “This is a good time to buy the right insurance” or “this stock will benefit” isn’t a good pitch after a tragedy. “Here’s how this will impact our daily lives,” more so.
  • Never make it about personalities: “John Smith of ABC Advisory predicted this would happen months ago” will make everyone groan.
  • Offer resources: “These five steps can help those affected by this event” adds a note of public spiritedness.
  • Use restraint: If the expertise in question can wait, observe a respectful amount of time until the human toll is assessed before reaching out.

Bottom line: Never forget that news and media are all about human lives and how we live them. In a time of darkness, illuminating information helps create control out of chaos.


Richard Dukas is chairman and CEO of Dukas Linden Public Relations.