NYPD Blues: When a Hashtag Becomes a Bashtag

July 15, 2014

Consumer-generated content created by adoring fans of a product or organization is the holy grail of authentic endorsement in a skeptical world.

This past spring, the New York Police Department asked its Twitter followers to share pictures with NYPD personnel for possible inclusion on its popular Facebook page. The tourists who flood Times Square and other city hotspots routinely ask to pose with one of New York’s finest, usually after they have shyly asked for directions to the closest subway stop.

To get things started on April 22, the NYPD posted a photo of a smiling young man arm in arm with two happy-looking uniformed police officers on a busy city street. Followers were asked to tweet their own photos using the custom hashtag #myNYPD.

Within hours, however, Twitter users hijacked #myNYPD and morphed it into an epic “bashtag,” critical of the NYPD’s alleged abuses of power. By the end of the day, there were nearly 102,000 critical tweets complaining of police brutality and the trampling of civil rights. It was the top trending hashtag on Twitter, blasting past #HappyEarthDay. Many tweets were mocking in tone, including:

  • “Free Massages from the #NYPD. What does YOUR Police Department offer?” tweeted @OccupyWallStNYC, which showed officers holding a man, seemingly screaming with his arms behind his back on top of a car.
  • “The #NYPD will also help you de-tangle your hair,” tweeted @MoreAndAgain, posting a photo of an officer pulling the hair of a person who appeared to be under arrest.
  • “Police help couple do yoga with proper form,” tweeted @Nycresistance, which showed a man and a woman on the ground with two officers pulling on their legs.

It didn’t take long for similar bashtags to attach themselves to police departments in Chicago, Los Angeles , Albuquerque, N.M., Seattle and Denver, among others.

News outlets from the Huffington Post to CNN quickly picked up the story, calling the outreach attempt “a fiasco.”

NYPD Police Deputy Chief Kim Royster released a statement that evening: “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community. Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city.”

The next day, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, who has his own Twitter feed, addressed the news media that were determined to weather the Twitterstorm. He told The Wall Street Journal that the NYPD would continue to expand “aggressively” in all facets of social media, including blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

The department is piloting a program in which five precinct commanders throughout the city tweet news from their neighborhoods because “it’s a good way to reach out to people,” Bratton said, adding, “Oftentimes, our activities are lawful, but they look awful, and that’s the reality.”

Managing stakeholder backlash

Organizations aren’t always perfect, and social media showcases everything. Smart organizations know their existence depends on the support of their stakeholders and working together to evolve.

Here are some ideas to consider if you become the center of negative attention:

  • Beware of a loaded hashtag. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for.

    In the world of social media, everyone has a voice, and the voices of many can send a powerful message.

    Justin Wedes, an Occupy Wall Street organizer and founding member of OWS’s 25-member media team, took advantage of the opportunity to showcase police arresting demonstrators during the 2011 OWS protests at Zuccotti Park in New York’s Financial District.

    Wedes’ humorous tweets are credited with the hijacking of #MyNYPD.

    “We saw the police department’s feeble attempt to drum up support for themselves,” Wedes said. “And we thought: ‘We’d better respond for all of those whose interactions with law enforcement have been less than courteous and respectful, or downright awful.’”
  • Have social conversations — realize that it’s not about you. Organizations don’t own or control the social conversations across the social media landscape.

    With Twitter, in particular, it’s about the experience of end users and how they feel about the brand or organization. That means that it’s a vehicle for fans and critics. Activists such as Wedes look for opportunities to promote their causes, and to engage others.

    “I’ve always kept an eye on their feed, especially during the protests, in the hopes that perhaps they might engage with us or at least acknowledge the protests as many other police feeds did,” Wedes said. “I think they referred to us once or twice throughout the whole occupation and protests afterward.”

    Ignoring activist organizations such as OWS means that the NYPD is left out of significant social exchanges. If an organization wants to influence the conversation, then it needs to participate.
  • Engage like real people. Organizations can meaningfully engage by moderating the conversation.

    That means responding to detractors in respectful ways rather than ignoring or providing a lifeless, automated response.

    It’s OK to show the human side of an organization with responses that come from real people — that’s authentic and encourages two-way dialogue. Constructing such messages means that organizations with bureaucratic, chain-of-command structures will need to step out of the comfort zone and open up.
  • Own it. Organizations need feedback to continually improve. When an organization receives a message, or more than 100,000 messages, it’s time to listen and consider making some changes.

    That doesn’t mean that an organization needs to agree with every critic, but they need to recognize that well-intentioned actions may affect others negatively. Recognition can be validating to the aggrieved and lessen resentment.

    Going forward, the NYPD should create a hashtag such as #NYPDcomplaints and use the feedback to build bridges of understanding with stakeholders.
  • Earn positive tweets the right way. The NYPD has had some success with social media. In 2012, a tourist spotted an officer buying new boots for a homeless man on a cold night. People viewed the Facebook post 1.6 million times, attracting nearly 275,000 Likes and more than 16,000 comments within a day.

    Recently, a passerby captured and shared another equally heartwarming moment when an NYPD officer helped a blind woman cross a busy road and escorted her two blocks to her destination. People have shared it more than 10,000 times, and the image has garnered nearly 43,000 Likes.

    People are out there, with their smartphones ready, waiting to capture life’s little moments. Will these snapshots and videos be used as evidence of good or suspect behavior? Rather than asking for compliments — earn them.

  • Guide employee efforts. Today, every employee can be a positive brand ambassador. Social media offers endless opportunities to share an organization’s values and services.

    Social media policies and training will help employees understand the nature of social conversations and how to manage situations.
  • Build relationships. Today, we have more tools available to build and manage relationships than ever before.

    Design a strategy that builds bridges for respectful and meaningful relationships with your key stakeholders — remember, you need them more than they need you.

Other Victims of Bashtags


In 2012, McDonald’s created the #McDstories hashtag, asking customers to share their favorite McDonald’s experiences at its restaurants. Many responded with negative comments about fast food, such as: “Lost 50 pounds in 6 months after I stopped working & eating at McDonald’s. #McDStories.” (@JKingArt)


JP Morgan Chase created #AskJPM to solicit career advice questions in November 2013. The timing of this hashtag came soon after the news media reported that the bank would pay $13 billion in fines for its role in the mortgage financial crisis. Twitter users posted more than 8,000 responses within a six-hour period. Most tweets were negative, and JP Morgan Chase quickly canceled the Q-and-A session.

A sample of people’s ire toward big banks includes: “Can I have my house back? #AskJPM” (@AdamColeman4) and “Did you have a specific number of people’s lives you needed to ruin before you considered your business model a success? #AskJPM” (@amy10506)


Patricia Swann, M.S.
Patricia Swann, M.S., associate professor of public relations, is dean of the School of Business and Justice Studies at Utica College. She is the author of “Cases in Public Relations Management.”
Email: pswann at utica.edu


Sherrell Hawkins says:

I also feel that some celebrities have fallen victim to the "bashtag", for example, Robin Thicke's camp recently setup an #askthicke Q&A. They had to have seen that this was a terrible idea. Even though his new album was being released,this still was not the best time to engage his "fans" after everything he's been through with the backlash of "Blurred Lines", the cheating allegations/photos, and pending divorce. Even if they had foreseen the bashtag results,the publicity stunt still wasn't enough to generate number for his album sales.

July 20, 2014

Cathy Jenkins says:

It might be better for enforcement agencies to use social media more as an extension of their jobs than as a simple PR exercise. For example, the Queensland Police Service led the way in Australia in its use of social media in times of disaster. Their report on it might be of interest to you.. it's available at http://www.police.qld.gov.au/Resources/Internet/services/reportsPublications/documents/QPSSocialMediaCaseStudy.pdf

July 27, 2014


When you throw a stone or something solid in the bush you do not always expect positive responses to come out but negative as well.Police in mostof the countries in the world find challenges in the way they police the community.In Uganda where I live the greatest activity the police do is solicit for funds from the culprits in form of bribes.Now if Ugandan are requested to talk about the police-bribery brutality,misappropriation of public money and abuse of power will be at the top of the list.It is is good in New York,NYPD could listen with a sincere heart to what the community say and find avenues to make some changes,here it is definitely impossible.I don't know why the Police in the whole world has stopped to be friendly to the people they police or the people have instead turned out to be unmanageable!Social Media is an outlet to tell the people who want to hear that something bad or good is taking place amidst themselves.NYPD is on a right trend.Thank you Patricia.

July 28, 2014

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