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Lessons From The NYPD’s Twitter PR Backlash

The latest Twitter campaign to backfire was probably as predictable as a taxi shortage at rush hour. Considering that NYC recently elected a new mayor largely on his rejection of controversial “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, it’s hard to imagine what the New York Police Department was thinking when it dreamed up its recent Twitter campaign.

By inviting locals to post photos of its experiences with the men in blue with the hashtag #mynypd, the department seemed to be expecting warm fuzzies. Instead, it was slapped with a social media backlash and a harsh dose of its own alleged “in your face” tactics. In a New York minute, the whole campaign turned into a Twitter photo contest about questionable police tactics and worse. Overall, not the finest hour for New York’s Finest.

The public bodyslam is reminiscent of the McDonald’s Twitter campaign meant to celebrate farmers, which was swiftly hijacked by critics of McD’s. Or JP Morgan’s scheduled Twitter chat hashtagged #AskJPM, which was canceled before it started due to social media outrage. (What is that makes some brands or groups lack self-awareness?)

For other companies or groups who may be subject to the same type of organizational myopia, here are some social media lessons that might help avoid the kind of backlash experienced by NYPD.

Communications is a two-way street. This is where the role of the chief communications officer needs to go beyond messaging and outbound PR announcements. If the organization is ignorant of its public perception, there should be some internal education. If it thinks it can control the response, that’s a separate – but equally serious – problem that the in-house communications experts need to address.

Know the medium. Twitter moves at lightning speed, hashtag hijacking is very common, and there are no filters. It’s simply not the best platform for a controversial organization or unpopular category.

Prepare for the unexpected. But all social platforms are by definition two-way channels, so any group that opens itself to a social mob should understand that. If you don’t have a plan to deal with a negative or critical response, you shouldn’t go social.

Line up allies. Maybe NYPD seeded the campaign with some innocuous photos to start, but if it did, it wasn’t enough. As veterans of many Twitter chats, we’ve found it useful to tap followers, advocates, and fans for social promotions. It pays to have socially savvy community members at the ready, although in this case they would likely have been outgunned by the critics.

Acknowledge missteps. Here’s where NYPD might have an opportunity to undertake a real community campaign, one that acknowledges past mistakes, public perception, and the role community policing plays in everyday life and public safety. It’s not too late.

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