Earlier this week, the New York City Police Department asked for people to share photos of themselves posing with police officers, tagging these images on Twitter with #myNYPD. Within a few hours, a stream of images depicting alleged police brutality dominated the hashtag timeline, and the @NYPDnews account had no immediate response.

While most of the morning-after media analysis focused on the online protest and questioning the initiative itself, the fate of this particular hashtag and others like it is not sealed. The most constructive reflection at present does not dwell on past mistakes, but rather accepts the challenge of an undecided future.

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Persevere past the hijacking
The #myNYPD campaign launched at 1:53 p.m. on April 22 with an example photo depicting smiling police officers. For the next hour, the NYPD published five more Twitter posts related to campaign. One final tweet came at 7:32 p.m., but by that point the Occupy movement had co-opted the hashtag with images and ironic captions.

The onslaught of unintended consequences began just 74 minutes into the campaign, when Occupy published a parody of the department’s initial call for photos, and not long after @NYPDnews looked away. The @OccupyWallStNY account published 18 negative photos and comments—including a retweet of a formal call to hijack the hashtag—before suggesting that the effort be duplicated in other cities (it was). According to Hashtagify, the top ten tags most closely associated with #myNYPD Wednesday morning included a handful associated with the Occupy movement. Because of this group’s technical expertise and their success appropriating #myNYPD, more co-opting campaigns are likely in the future.

Given the initial reaction to #myNYPD, it would be easy to pull the plug and ignore the campaign, or even further restrict official social media activity. However, there are actions that can be taken to turn short-term struggles into long-term success.

The NYPD Twitter account resumed posting at 10:15 a.m. the next morning, reporting a missing person who had been reunited with her family, but gave no response until late in the day. From the New York Police Commissioner’s statement, it is clear the department is committed to outreach and will weather the storm.

“That campaign hasn’t stopped,” Bill Bratton told reporters. “The reality of policing is often times our activities are lawful, but they look awful. As I looked at a lot of those photos, those officers engaged lawfully in their activities.”

Counter content with context
In the early days of Twitter, Comcast turned a negative customer service reputation into a positive model for how to embrace criticism online. Frank Eliason, then a customer outreach agent experimenting with social media, used his @ComcastCares account to help customers work through their service issues. Instead of ignoring, combating or excusing the criticism, Eliason conducted searches to seek out complaints about his company. Although not every interaction had a positive outcome, customers who exchanged tweets with Eliason generally had a happier experience and left with a more positive view of Comcast.

Addressing the rogue #myNYPD images may not change the political positions of protesters, but providing context could soften the general negativity surrounding that criticism. Each dramatic image has a story, one that involves not only the captured moment, but also the actions that led up to the photo and any consequences that followed. If the NYPD responds with information describing those circumstances—crimes committed, outcomes of legal actions taken, or changes to policy—more observers may view future tweets with a critical eye.

The “Angry Cop” photo used by Occupy in their initial #myNYPD post, for example, was taken by John Minchillo of AP during the 2011 eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park. Although now an icon for police brutality, the unidentified officer certainly has a story that precedes and follows that photo. Sharing that narrative, perhaps with a new photo taken with a citizen on the street (the original intent of the Twitter campaign), could serve to humanize a polarizing image.

Empower everyone to act
We no longer live in a world where public relations is exclusive domain of a few people in a marketing department. Whether they are at a desk or in the field, every officer should have basic digital literacy to inform their decisions. Acquiring this knowledge involves both training and experience with the tools.

The police department recently limited social media access on the job, allowing only @NYPDnews and a select number of precinct captains to tweet. Even if patrolling officers aren’t expected to be burdened with posting to Twitter or YouTube, they should understand how their day-to-day actions are communicated through those media channels. They should also be instructed on how to best interact with civilians to make use of mobile devices in a positive way, such as posting a picture with them to #myNYPD. The prevalence of smartphones, with cameras and Facebook at the ready, offers the same threats and benefits as a body-worn camera issued by the department, only with exponentially greater potential to spread to the rest of the world.

NYPD spokeswoman Kim Royster, promoted to Deputy Chief last October, believes transparency is good for the city. “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community,” Roster told CNN. “Twitter proves an open forum for an uncensored exchange, and this is an open dialogue good for our city.”

The positive contributions law enforcement makes to society overwhelms the negatives, the more extreme examples of which dominated the first day of the #myNYPD campaign. As it endures early backlash, the department must stay on message by inviting moments of connection with local citizens, even as they seek out and engage critics. If the organization from top to bottom is better trained to surface these moments, the hashtag battle can be won.

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