by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes, even with the best intentions, your communication efforts can backfire, causing a public relations nightmare. Consider the case of the New York City Police Department and its effort this week to engage in what it thought was a constructive use of social media via Twitter. Sounded simple and innocent enough, right? The NYPD communications team put out the following message: "Do you have a photo w/a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD."

The goal was to get pictures and posts saying nice things about the public’s experience interacting with members of the NYPD. But that’s the furthest thing from what actually happened. Immediately, the NYPD post went viral and a range of negative, nasty and embarrassing comments and images were posted on Twitter as the social media experiment imploded.

Consider some of the worst Twitter posts:

@CassandraRules wrote: "There’s always this classic shot of (Deputy Inspector) Anthony Bologna happily pepper spraying peaceful protestors."
"Here the #NYPD engages with its community members, changing hearts and minds one baton at a time," a user of Occupy NYC’s Twitter handle wrote, including a picture of cops struggling with protesters.
While many of the posts came from folks connected to Occupy Wall Street who engaged in confrontations with the NYPD in 2011, the social media frenzy didn’t stop there. One user posted the picture of Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man bloodied by cops during a January jaywalking incident.

This is the last thing the communications team expected from what it thought was a positive request for feedback. Clearly, the NYPD was naive for not understanding the nature of social media.

The first rule in communication is to know your audience. Most people engaging in social media are younger and some are involved in social causes. One of those causes is the Occupy Wall Street movement that has a less than great history with the NYPD. Many of their run-ins with police were covered by the media with graphic pictures, headlines and stories. How could the NYPD communications team not expect some of these same folks to tweet their experience with cops in New York? This is what I mean by naive.

I’m not convinced the NYPD communications team fully thought through this initiative. What were the pros and cons? The risks versus the benefits? How would they respond if it went bad? A communications plan has to consider worst-case scenarios. It seems the NYPD communications team simply hoped for the best with its Twitter request. That’s not a communications plan. That’s just wishful thinking.

The larger question is what is the appropriate use of social media in a broader communications strategy? Was Twitter the right platform for the NYPD to be using in the first place? I argue that too much of Twitter is beyond your control: The message can be easily distorted and turned against you in such an open and uncontrolled forum.

Twitter has its place, as do other social media communication platforms, but only when the plan is thought through in a smart, strategic and comprehensive fashion. None of this happened this past week in the NYPD Twitter fiasco. Much of this PR nightmare was avoidable if only some of these critical and strategic communication questions had been considered before the initial Tweet was sent.

But sometimes communication lessons are learned the hard way.