Twitter is a good example of a double-edged sword. When companies or entities try to use it for positive PR purposes, as often as not it backfires, and what is generated instead is embarrassing and often humorous.
As a very recent example, consider the New York City Police Department. Some genius decided it would be helpful to ask people to tweet their pictures with members of the police force with the hashtag #myNYPD. Clearly, the Department envisioned smiling photos of citizens and friendly, blue-coated officers.
But what actually happened didn’t go according to that plan. Instead, people started tweeting photos of police officers handcuffing suspects, lashing out with batons, and otherwise engaging in less positive interactions with members of the public. Other tweets identified people who had been shot to death by police and complaining about police brutality — as well as ripping the NYPD for a self-inflicted PR disaster.
The NYPD example probably should be taught in PR classes about use of social media. What are the key elements of this colossal blunder? One is a person or entity who lacks significant awareness of how they are actually perceived by the public and therefore can’t envision the negative tweets that their campaign might generate. It’s hard to imagine that any police department would be blind to the fact that they aren’t adored by a significant percentage of the public — after all, the police regularly issue tickets, order people around, and arrest and apprehend suspects who proclaim their innocence, and those people have families and friends — but the NYPD apparently falls into that category. That’s amazing, and suggests that the PR decisionmakers aren’t adequately acquainted with reality.
A second element is a lack of understanding of human nature. People who are angry and negative are far more motivated to post something than people who are happy and positive. Tourists who were helped by members of the NYPD aren’t likely to take a photo or be aware of a Twitter campaign about the NYPD — but somebody who is convinced that the cops routinely engage in racial profiling will be monitoring and ready to spring when an ill-advised campaign gets underway.
If I were a company or a public entity, I’d be very cautious about inviting Twitter chatter. Our grandmothers told us, “be careful what you ask for” — and that was wise advice,