The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley, Robert Burns tells us -- and sometimes the plans weren’t laid particularly well in the first place. On that note this week the New York City Police Department discovered that hashtags can be a double-edged sword, as people may use them for purposes quite other than you intended.
The NYPD idea was nice enough: the department’s official Twitter account invited followers to tweet photos of themselves with NYPD officers using the hashtag #myNYPD. No doubt the social media manager in question imagined fun photos of smiling cops at street fairs, playing with kids, and helping little old ladies (all of which happens). But that’s not quite how it turned out.
Occupy Wall Street, which is apparently still a thing, at least online, kicked things off by tweeting a photo of a baton-wielding cop about to take a whack at an OWS protester, with a caption: “Here the #NYPD engages with its community members, changing hearts and minds one baton at a time. #myNYPD.” This unleashed a torrent of similarly unflattering photos from other users, including a woman who appears to be having her breast groped and an unarmed man being held face down by four officers.
Of course because this is Twitter and space is limited, there is pretty much zero context to most of the photos, even when captions were provided. And while I’ve had my less-than-stellar experiences with the NYPD, I am very hesitant to judge a particular situation based on a single photograph, as images are notoriously ambiguous. Still, some of them are pretty bad: the image of an 84-year-old man with blood on his face after being arrested for jaywalking (which was actually a New York Post cover) is hard to explain away.
Giving credit where credit is due, the NYPD has been enormously successful using social media for its core mission of, you know, catching bad guys. Over the last few years the NYPD has arrested hundreds of gang members involved in murder, assault, robbery, and other crimes following investigations that used social media to map connections and collect evidence in the form of online boasts. Along the way the public got to know about criminal organizations with names like the “Very Crispy Gangsters.”
Returning to the recent debacle, maybe there are some smart social media marketers out there who have some advice for the NYPD about how to pull off this kind of campaign while avoiding the “repurposing” of their hashtag? If so, please share in the comments section.