Piggy-Back PR: How Marketers Are Capitalizing on Coronavirus


I recently updated a novella I wrote for a class at University of Southern California at Davis School of Gerontology. I was invited to be a guest lecturer on the topic of marketing to boomers and seniors.

Instead of a textbook for the students, I wrote a love story about a young man named Harrison, just out of college who joins a marketing firm.

Harrison is excited at his prospects and expects to be assigned a high-tech product to market to people his own age. But instead, they hand him a cane and tell him to create a marketing campaign for seniors.

The story follows Harrison’s journey through each marketing department of the firm, each one advising him and mentoring him. I intended that the students learn from this relatable story, which I called The Cane Miracle, about marketing to the mature from an insider’s point of view.

To keep my students reading, I included a character named Jennifer, also a recent grad, who landed a job in a public relations firm. Sparks flew between Harrison and Jennifer. As a result, all I can say is that I was asked back for another lecture.

I tell you about The Cane Miracle because we all are being bombarded with marketing messages crafted by the type of firm described in the novella—firms that design and write ads, use public relations and social media to disseminate stories that persuade you to buy…and gather information about you to craft the right ads, messages and stories that will appeal to you.

By understanding how products are marketed to the “mature,” you might be better armed to spot coronavirus “piggyback” messaging. That, in turn, will help you sort out hype from fact.Piggyback messaging comes from the childrens’ game where someone gets a free ride on another person’s back. In this case, marketing messages are getting a free ride on the back of this global tragedy.

Let’s say you are a public relations professional, like Jennifer in The Cane Miracle, tasked with getting press coverage for your client’s latest product—a cane.

Now, canes, no matter how elegant, are not very exciting in the news, and it’s hard to get a reporter in any medium to make a fuss over your product. Your story is the weak player.

Along comes a strong story like coronavirus. Elders are in the news every minute, and everything about them becomes interesting. It’s natural for your creative juices to flow as you promote stories about your canes that piggyback on the tsunami of items regarding the coronavirus.

The press can’t get enough of every angle, and so your lowly, tough-to-get-attention product can be parlayed into big headlines…

  • 10 Ways to Keep Your Cane Clean and Safe from Corona
  • How Long Does the Coronavirus Stay on Your Cane?
  • Operators of Senior Communities Concerned Over Canes as COVID-19 Breeding Ground
  • Make your Mom’s Cane Coronavirus-Free

Now, these stories are sent to journalists, and they are permitted to use your data, suggestions, charts, statistics, etc. Of course, many will add a quote from the CEO or other representative of the company you are hired to promote. You will be sure to include quotable statements in your press release.

It’s a win-win. The journalist has a story…the public has information…the company gets free publicity (except for the cost of their PR agent.)

All well and good. But piggyback PR can become misleading when we mistake the hype for a fact.

Let’s go back to The Cane Miracle. Even a beginning piggyback story of cleaning your cane can morph into “Canes Carry Coronavirus” or “Did Canes Cause Corona?”or “Are Careless Old People Killing Us?”

Or, reading a story on canes and coronavirus may make some older adults fearful of using a cane and find it too dangerous. So Mom is left siting in a chair for hours or hobbling from room to room without her cane, increasing her chance of falling.

Now, remember, all the original piggyback piece was meant to accomplish was put canes in the spotlight.

Yes, sometimes the pitch misfires into a negative account about the product or service. It’s complicated.

How to read a story and know the difference between PR and journalism. When reading any story that stands on the back of a mega-story like the coronavirus—a piggyback story—ask yourself the eternal question, Que bono?…Who benefits?

If the company, service or product mentioned benefits from this story, the content very likely might be generated through piggyback marketing. Just because that’s the case, don’t dismiss it. Some of the most critical information comes from commercial sources. Just understand that the origin might not be original research by the author.

For example, many cleaning products companies are sending me information on how to clean the surfaces in my home. I’ll be posting that on my social media linked directly to the articles from the PR company.

This is useful information that we all need, and if a corporation is spending its money to research and disseminate the facts, just because it puts the company in a good light doesn’t mean that we should ignore what is useful to us.

It’s up to you to separate the hype of a product from the valuable facts that can make you better informed. The first step is to realize that the information may be accurate but is not generated by journalism, but instead by corporate outreach. The second step is to decide if the information influences you to act. If it does, double-check to see if you can get independent confirmation before you buy anything or make a different type of move.

This goes for radio and podcasts, as well as the printed word. I recorded interviews on online shopping for older adults with Heidi Robinson, COO of the Because Market and with the Liwanag Ojala, CEO of CaringBridge.org on sharing your health journey in an online community. I found them through the efforts of their PR company.

What am I not including on my Generation Bold Radio show?

  • Mood-boosting foods. Yes, we need a lift during the corona lull, but the PR pitch did not convince me with any good science that the foods suggested would help.
  • Facts about wine. This release said that wine is being drunk more because we are sheltered and have nothing to do, so we should know more about wines. OK, maybe so, but I think this promotes lonely, sad drinking. It’s out.
  • Fashion for 20-years-olds to wear when taking at-home selfies. Same problem as the condom pitch I was sent (yes, I was). Not my audience.

If you are media savvy, Que Bono? You! In a media frenzy such as generated by coronavirus, read everything with a critical eye. The need to be media savvy is greater than ever. I can’t give you a six-week course on selling to seniors, but I can give you a nifty story that reveals the variety of ways that a crisis generates news and non-news, so that you know the difference.