Don’t hashtag when they hate you

In the latest in our series of blog posts by CommsDirect speakers Steven Lewis, Director of Taleist, shares how to avoid hashtag horrors.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. “Do you have a photo w/ a member of the NYPD?” asked NYPD News, an official Twitter account for the police department. “Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD. It may be featured on our Facebook.”

Yes, it turned out, the public did have photos of themselves with the NYPD. They had pictures of the NYPD pressing a man against the bonnet of his car — “Free massages from the NYPD”. They had pictures of a policeman pulling a woman by her hair — “The NYPD will also help you detangle your hair”. And they had one of an officer helping the NYPD change hearts and minds “one baton at a time”. That one went global quickly.

The least surprising things about this social media crisis

The least surprising things about this social media crisis were that the hashtag was hijacked and that the hijacking made news around the world.

What is surprising about the #myNYPD debacle is:

1. the NYPD team couldn’t see this coming
2. a procession of companies and organisations are still doing this to themselves even though precedents abound

The luxury of case studies

Brands are hardly flying into uncharted airspace when it comes to eating a hashtag hand grenade while trying to “engage” with their audiences.

In 2011 Qantas turned itself into an international case study in social media mismanagement when it asked passengers what #qantasluxury meant to them. It was, as their social media team was swiftly taught, a stupid question to ask only a month after grounding your entire fleet and leaving passengers stranded around the world.

Meanwhile elsewhere

Late last year, after British Gas announced a price rise of 9.2%, its director of customer services thought he might placate the public by answering questions they posed on Twitter using the hashtag #AskBG.

He had to call it off after getting a lot of this in response:

It doesn’t stop there

In May the Washington Redskins football team asked people to tweet about #RedskinsPride. This was the sort of reply that made the news:

You don’t own the label

So when the NYPD blundered into the embrace of Twitter ridicule in June they had plenty of examples of hashtagging gone wrong. Yet still they did it.

One theory I have is that companies are used to a world of advertising and marketing where they own what they create, which means they control it. The problem with hashtags is that you don’t own them and you don’t get to control them.

The Walkley Foundation might start the hashtag #CommsDirect to group conversations about its conference but it doesn’t own it. The Foundation can’t police the hashtag’s use, stop undesirables from using it, or dictate what it can be used for. Anyone can start a hashtag and anyone can use it. For anything. The Sydney Writers’ Festival hashtag this year — #swf2014 — is also a hashtag used by the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries in the UK:

and by people talking about the evolution of the smart workforce:

There are no rules. You don’t own a piece of hashtag real estate because you staked it out first.

You build the stage but you can’t choose the speakers

What you do when you create a hashtag is build a stage and send out a speaking invitation to all comers. Some of those people might be your supporters but your detractors might well be more motivated than your supporters. After all, you’re building stage and bringing an audience they want to talk to.

Any disgruntled passenger could have created the #qantasluxury hashtag but how much sweeter was it for annoyed wits that Qantas itself pitched the tent? Ditto #myNYPD. Occupy Wall Street had plenty of hashtags of its own:

Participating in those conversations wouldn’t have given them a fraction of the pleasure that came from hijacking a hashtag the NYPD had made for itself. And it’s not the hashtag that attracts the media, it’s the spectacular own goal that brings the spotlight.

So what’s a company to do?

My second theory is that companies are awful at being honest with themselves. There’s either too much corporate ego going around or someone sees the pitfalls but doesn’t trust the boss to be willing to hear it.

If you can be honest with yourself, the process is simple. You just have to ask yourself these four questions:

1. Who is against me?
2. Why are they against me?
3. Do they seem to have a handle on social media?
4. How might this hashtag play into their hands?

The NYPD’s social media team would have had no trouble answering the first three of these questions. And, if the team thought the department couldn’t answer the fourth on its own, they should have resorted to an older-style medium. They should have phoned a friend.



Steven LewisSteven Lewis is the director of Taleist, a digital communications agency that helps companies communicate better online. He blogs about social media and content marketing at will be speaking at CommsDirect on August 7 on the Putting out wildfires before they startpanel.Tickets are just $395 for those working in media or the not-for-profit sector and $495 for corporate: $100 off the regular price!