Case study: NYPD discovers the risks of hashtag campaigns

At the end of April 2014, the New York City Police Department asked its followers on Twitter to Tweet a photo with a member of the NYPD using the hashtag, #myNYPD. The social media team were expecting to receive plenty of positive photos of its police officers with the community – helping people. Instead, within minutes they started to receive hundreds of photos of police brutality during the Occupy Wall Street protests, an elderly man being arrested for jaywalking and even one of a dog being frisked.

At one point more than 10,000 negative Tweets and photos with #myNYPD were posted per hour. The NYPD tried to make the best of the campaign and re-Tweeted the positive ones and posted them to Facebook. 

Many social media experts and media commentators asked why NYPD didn’t see the potential for a “bash tag” reaction coming in the first place. About 18 months earlier, McDonald’s suffered a similar fate. They created the #McDStories tag and asked people to share their stories of visiting McDonald’s – the only problem was that they shared the wrong kind of stories. Here’s an example of a few of those Tweets:

The promoted #McDStories campaign ran for less than two hours before it was pulled from Twitter, but the hashtag has lived on and is still regularly tweeted by people who aren’t satisfied with their McDonald’s experience.

“As Twitter continues to evolve its platform and engagement opportunities, we’re learning from our experiences,” Rick Wion, McDonald’s social media director, said in a statement. “We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours. With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.”

More analysis of the bashtag is provided by Anthony Rotolo, Syracuse University Assistant Professor, in this video interview with the Wall Street Journal. In this short clip, he talks about what organisations need to consider before starting a hashtag campaign.


(1) Assess potential pitfalls to your hashtag

For example, if your police officers have had violent run-ins with protesters, will your Twitter followers tweet nice happy photos?

(2) Build a rapport with audiences

Engage with your followers first. Do you have a positive relationship with them online?

(3) Risk assessment

Like in all PR campaigns, do your communications risk assessment. Is there anything in the environment that will get dredged up? What is the worst possible scenario?

(4) Choose your strategy

You might think that your hashtag sounds fantastic, but can it be viewed in a different way by other people? Test it out first, just to be sure.

(5) Plan your strategy

What if your hashtag campaign goes wrong? What’s your organisation’s plan for responding? If the worst-case scenario happens, what’s your crisis plan? How will you deal with it? Who is in charge?

Think carefully when embarking on a social media campaign: does the reward outweigh the risk?

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This article draws on the knowledge base from ISOC courses on social media and in particular the ISOC course Crisis Management in Social Media.