NYPD Blew: 4 Lessons from the #MyNYPD fiasco

In January 2012, the McDonald’s Corporation coined the Twitter hashtag #McDStories, with which it hoped to solicit positive, heartwarming anecdotes about the fast food chain from customers and employees alike. The result was one of the most famous social media marketing catastrophes of all time, with the hashtag prompting a flood of far-from-flattering tales from the Golden Arches.

The #McDStories fiasco helped popularize the term ‘bashtag’—and served as a stark warning of the dangers of leaping headfirst into a social media campaign without testing the water first.

This week, a similar disaster befell the New York Police Department. When the NYPD introduced the hashtag #MyNYPD in an attempt to solicit photos from New Yorkers of their interactions with the city’s cops, it immediately trended, receiving over 10,000 uses in the first few hours.


Unfortunately, it was not the sort of trending New York’s Finest had hoped for, with the hashtag quickly becoming subsumed with photos of violent arrests and other instances of police brutality—much of it from the Occupy Wall Street protests, as well as comments like these:

  • #MyNYPD makes me feel paranoid, sweaty, and nervous when I’m doing absolutely nothing wrong. “Justice" shouldn’t make me fear for my life.
  • Brave police officers don't excuse those in uniform who profile and brutalize people of color. You value honor? Demonstrate it. #myNYPD
  • #MyNYPD rolled up on me demanding I show them the 'weapon I had concealed in my pocket.' It was my iPod. I felt so safe!
  • Don't you love getting hugged from behind by the #NYPD? Tweet us pictures of your special moment! #MyNYPD

While it’s tempting to simply pooh-pooh the NYPD and McDonald’s for lack of foresight, these two cases should serve as a reminder that social media campaigns are, by definition, calculated risks that can easily turn against a company or organization. In theory, any campaign runs the risk of spiralling out of control. Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken to significantly reduce this risk.

1. Look before you leap.

Both the NYPD and McDonald’s clearly underestimated their reputational liabilities ahead of their respective Twitter hashtag disasters. In the case of the #McDStories fiasco, the company launched the campaign by calling on the public to “meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day.” Any cursory analysis of social media conversations about McDonald’s would have made it clear that “quality food” isn’t exactly a McDonald’s hallmark and that making this the focal point of a social media campaign was a very bad idea.

Similarly, the New York Police Department could easily have avoided this latest social media disaster by scanning the digital landscape and reaching the obvious conclusion that the city’s cops aren’t exactly perceived to be a friendly bunch of Dudley Do-Rights, an image that the creators of this campaign were clearly attempting to convey. Uncensored and open dialogue may be “good for the city” as NYPD spokeswoman Kim Royster stated, but opening the floodgates before testing the waters is to court disaster.

2. Join the conversation first.

Hashtag-specific social media campaigns can indeed do great things for a company or organization, but it won’t happen in a vacuum. Instead of simply blasting information out into the Twitterverse, companies need to first establish their social media personalities through day-to-day interaction with customers and other stakeholders before launching specific campaigns.

The NYPD would have been well advised to follow the example of their counterparts in Dallas, Texas. Earlier this year, the Dallas Police Department launched what many are calling the most ambitious social media campaign by a law enforcement body, in which it is encouraging officers to use Twitter and other tools to engage with the public and even offering the city’s cops one-day social media training courses. A similar approach has been adopted by the Toronto Police Service, with positive results.

3. Give your followers something.

With the #MyNYPD and #McDStories campaigns, the organizations in question made two critical mistakes—firstly by inadvertently drawing attention to their main reputational liabilities, and secondly by essentially soliciting positive praise while offering nothing in return. Hashtag-driven campaigns like these can indeed be very successful, but only when there’s give and take between the organization and the participants.

Edmonton International Airport’s recent “Find the Cowboy” contest centred on the hashtag #EIAcowboy (a campaign centred on EIA’s new non-stop service to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with American Airlines) is an excellent example of an effective social media campaign. The campaign, which ended today, encouraged passengers to locate and take a selfie with a cardboard cut-out cowboy for a chance to win free tickets to any of the airport’s 60-plus non-stop destinations, with an extra cash prize available to those enrolled in the EIA rewards program.

Had EIA merely asked passengers to take a photo of themselves with the cowboy and offered nothing in return, the campaign would have at best flopped, and at worst opened the airport to ridicule. Instead the only negative feedback it received the occasional complaint about the @FlyEIA Twitter feed being completely swamped by people’s cowboy pics.

“Giving your followers something” doesn’t necessarily mean prizes or giveaways. It can also mean providing engaging content beyond simple self-promotion. Here are two contrasting examples of campaign tweets:

  • Wrong: @CoronadoCoffee is the taste that satisfies! Tell us your #CoronadoTales.
  • Right: 5 reasons to visit San Marcos, Guatemala, home of @CoronadoCoffee plantation. This & more at #CoronadoTales.

4. Play up your strong suits.

Both the NYPD and McDonald’s could have found stronger suits to focus on than their respective reputations for public friendliness and nutritional value. In the case of McDonald's, the company could well take a page out of one of their independently owned subsidiary in Spruce Grove and Stony Plain (@McDonalds_Thys), which was recently lauded by Edmonton social media expert Ryan Holtz as one of the region’s top Twitter performers. Their secret? Rather than focussing on Happy Meals, McDonald’s SG/SP instead focusses on its charitable activities and its strong partnership with Ronald McDonald House of Northern Alberta.

Likewise, the NYPD could have narrowed its focus to areas where the force’s reputation is less sullied by past instances of police brutality. But alas, New York’s Finest appear to be far from stellar at digital media. At the same time that it launched the disastrous #MyNYPD hashtag, the department botched yet another opportunity at positive PR by marking Women’s History Month with an “incomprehensible” YouTube video with no dialogue and completely illegible writing. For a police force with a long and laudable history of female representation, this was yet another social media airball.

That said, New York’s Finest can take heart in the fact that there are lots of good examples out there to follow. The one-year anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing shed light on, among other things, the Boston Police Department’s extremely effective use of social media in the aftermath of the tragedy, both in pursuing the perpetrators and restoring calm and public trust in law enforcement. The NYPD would be well advised to follow their New England rivals’ fine example.