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Preventing Social Media Backfire: Learning from #myNYPD

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In the instantaneous world of Twitter, individuals, organizations and brands need to be hyper-sensitive of the potential vulnerabilities real-time conversation can bring, especially with the use of hashtags. The simple act of using a hashtag or starting a new one for a communications, marketing or advertising campaign might seem like a simple enough idea on the surface, but without proper planning and strategy this may backfire.

To be clear, there are countless examples where hashtag use has gone off without a hitch and helped elevate issues and campaigns to the top of trending topics across the Internet.

However, there are also plenty of instances where this goes wrong. The New York Police Department is the latest organization to see a campaign with good intentions unfortunately spiral out of control.

Earlier this week, in an attempt to generate goodwill and highlight positive community interactions, the NYPD asked people to tweet photos of themselves with officers and tag the photos using a newly-created “#myNYPD” hashtag. The responses started out positive, but quickly turned sarcastic, critical and outright negative with people posting photos of police violence – and according to a post on Mashable, the campaign even sparked backlash against other police departments across the U.S. Within 24 hours, #myNYPD was the top trending hashtag on Twitter, replacing #HappyEarthDay. The ensuing media coverage only amplified the budding criticism.

Despite trying to engage the community in a creative way, the trending photos of police violence show how quick a custom hashtag or co-opting an existing hashtag can go wrong. It also shows the importance of thinking about a few specific areas when activating a tactic on social media.

1. Gauge your reputation before launching a social media tactic

Most gaffes on social media are not necessarily only a social media problem or issue. In fact, in most instances (particularly with hashtags gone awry) the situation is actually just a reflection of the organization’s current reputation. If you have a reputation problem then simple social media tactics create opportunities for critics to target you. Whether launching a Twitter chat with a senior executive amidst turmoil in your industry or using a hashtag that has huge potential for sarcastic responses, most of these situations exacerbate existing bad reputations – you do not have a social media problem, you have a reputation problem that needs fixing before further simple feel-good social media tactics can be deployed.

2. Do your research

How are current hashtags being used? What is the tone of conversation? Have recent current events impacted the hashtag? For new hashtags, it is important to look at how your target audience uses hashtags and whether using a new one might increase awareness to the right types of online communities. Additionally, how have others used similar types of hashtags (competitors, peers, etc.) and are there any key learnings from those examples? Finally, what is the current level of online conversation and activity around your organization and the industry? Is it generally negative in tone? If so, then consider holding off on launching a feel-good campaign – or perhaps start with employees or brand advocates first before going out more publicly.

3. Call in your red team of BS detectors

Whether you include a small advisory board of customers, employees or independent survey respondents, it is critical that you test your campaign before you launch. Bringing in employees who sit in customer service to provide feedback is an easy way to see if you are vulnerable to sarcasm or criticism – they are on the front lines regularly interacting with customers and clients and can give you a no-nonsense assessment based on what they hear on a daily basis.

4. Plan for the worst

As is the case with any communications, marketing or advertising campaign, there should be a plan for when (not if) things take a turn for the worse. Running through the possible scenarios will help inform your response plan, develop holding statements and create template toolkits that are turnkey. It will also allow you to gauge how thick your skin is in terms of knowing which bad scenarios create too much stress or pressure for your executives and what you can ignore or suffer through in terms of simple criticism without shutting the entire campaign down.

Without a smart, tested and informed plan for real-time interactions and conversation tagging on Twitter, you risk jeopardizing your brand or cause, and worst case, trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

Dan Webber leads the digital corporate reputation and crisis management team out of Edelman’s Washington D.C. office. Neely Dockins is a senior account executive on the digital crisis management team.

Featured tweet by @OCongress.
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