PR Disaster

05.05.14

Why Industry Hashtags #FAIL

When the NYPD started #MYNYPD on Twitter, it was practically gift wrapped for critics. It’s just one of many failed industry and corporate hashtags.

#TBT #FF #Scandal. When something goes viral on Twitter, everyone in public relations and corporate communications stares with envy. Unfortunately, when things go south, they go south very quickly. That’s what happened with #MYNYPD.

Arguably a well-intentioned effort to engage the community, #MYNYPD was meant to share tweets and photos of police officers doing good around New York City. But like other hijacked hashtags, it was virtually gift-wrapped for its critics. What made it such an easy target? A provocative brand, an easily co-optable hashtag, and the very nature of being a government agency. The public appropriation of #MYNYPD highlights the chasm between social media perception and reality.

Twitter is by its very nature designed to amplify information—and people are by their very nature more likely to complain than compliment. Handing folks an easier way to tag your organization—and highlight their simmering discontent—is not going to end well. Starbucks learned this lesson the hard way when they launched #SharetheCheer in the midst of a controversy over paying UK taxes. As such, #SharetheCheer was used to share sarcasm.  Likewise, Quantas airline made a timing error when they began the #QuantasLuxury campaign while passengers were stranded overseas on their airline.

The most memorable #TwitterFail was most likely #McDStories, which was featured in the New York Times Magazine in May 2012. In the midst of ongoing PR challenges around fast food’s connection to obesity and a more recent “pink slime” controversy, McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign featuring farmers and soliciting stories. That’s where things went awry, as customers shared horrible stories about food and experiences. Similarly, when anti-choice groups started a #PraytoEndAbortion campaign, reproductive rights groups co-opted the slogan, transforming the tweets to: ”#PraytoEndAbortion that is unsafe, illegal, and driven underground by needless restrictions…” and “States that teach abstinence-only have the highest rates of teen pregnancies. Don't #PraytoEndAbortion, provide a real education.”

Government agencies necessarily have a higher proportion of media and critics as Twitter followers. That’s just the way it is. For some, it’s their job to hold leaders accountable, and others are waiting for something to criticize. Government is also, reasonably, held to a higher standard. Sweden tried an interesting experiment in June 2012, called Curators of Sweden, where each week they gave their Twitter handle to a different person. This seems like a disaster waiting to happen. And it was. This became obvious when one of the guest tweeters tweeted “Once I asked a co-worker what a jew is. He was "part jew", whatever that means….” The White House had better luck when they asked constituents to use #My2K to share what they would do with money they could potentially save in taxes. Some users did co-opt the hashtag to complain about the administration—but the more frustrating monkey wrench was that the conservative Heritage Foundation purchased the promoted tweet so that anyone reading the hashtags would see their advertising against the Administration. 

When anti-choice groups started a #PraytoEndAbortion campaign, reproductive rights groups co-opted the slogan to: ”#PraytoEndAbortion that is unsafe, illegal, and driven underground by needless restrictions…”

The NYPD is, necessarily, the most visible of New York City’s agencies. It has been the center of national coverage on stop and frisk and very recently was one of the defining topics of the New York City mayoral race. Not to mention that officers are occasionally arrested for wrongdoing and those stories often become front-page news. Additionally, groups like Occupy Wall Street and the New York Civil Liberties Union are loud and frequent opponents of the NYPD; Occupy Wall Street alone has nearly double the Twitter followers of NYPDNews. Not only did both entities help drive the negative coverage of #MYNYPD, but they have previously led unique campaigns around NYPD.

So yes, attempting to solicit positive stories about the NYPD predictably opened the floodgates for Twitter criticism. But it would be an error to mistake Twitter engagement for actual representation of police behavior or even real public sentiment. Because one of the more noteworthy aspects of all this is how it places in stark relief the incredible disconnect between the interests of social media, the actual public impression of the police and, indeed, the actual reality of policing. 

To look at representative #MYNYPD tweets, you'd think the public hated the police. And yet polls regularly demonstrate the contrary: A March 2012 Quinnipiac poll showed 63 percent of New Yorkers approve of the way the NYPD does its job; a January 2013 Q poll showed 70 percent approval; and an April 2013 poll showed 60 percent approval. 

To look at those tweets, you'd think officers engaged in rampant wrongdoing. But did any of the salivating news coverage actually delve into accusations of wholesale misconduct or source evidence of systemic brutality? None that I saw. What we saw was a social media gaffe, to be sure, that played right into the basest instincts of a medium designed to exploit them.

Between April 22nd and 23rd, during the #MYNYPD frenzy, the NYPD issued over 20 media alerts concerning missing persons, robberies, assaults, arson, and a dead 9 year old boy.

Not exactly the thing that sets Twitter aflame.