Social media is an essential and powerful tool that modern brands cannot ignore. Unfortunately many brands treat it like old-fashioned broadcast media, a mistake that can can cause some very public stumbles.

One of the biggest errors is thinking you can control the conversation. Last week, the New York Police discovered just how much hot water that assumption can land you in. On Tuesday the department used its Twitter account, @NYPDNews, in an attempt to generate some good press.

They asked New Yorkers to tag themselves in photos with NYPD officers using the hashtag #myNYPD. The goal was to generate good media and engagement, but they did not take into account the fact that the Internet audience is often a brutally honest and intensely critical one. By midnight that evening, more than 70,000 tweets and photos of police brutality had dethroned #HappyEarthDay as the trending topic for the evening.

Should Have Seen It Coming

It was a disaster that could have been avoided if they had understood that their audience online is one that trends more toward expression than obedience. In short, they opened themselves up to being trolled. What makes the situation even more cringe-inducing is the fact that even if they did not know their audience, they still should have expected it.

After all, Occupy Wall Street NYC has been a vicious critic and online opponent of the NYPD for years now. It is not at all shocking that Occupy is credited with pushing this hashtag fiasco to a national level.

The lesson here is to let go of your illusion of control, and plan accordingly. When you are under the spotlight on a regular basis for misconduct, asking for stories about your brand’s behavior from the online public is simply asking to be smacked down in public.

The NYPD already was under fire for violating people’s civil rights.

Commissioner Willian Bratton has, within the past 10 days or so, disbanded one of the force’s intelligence units, one that spied on Muslim neighborhoods. He also has had his feet held to the fire over the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Would you ask for public praise when this is the face of your brand to the community?

Picking Your Platform?

There are some who think that controlling the conversation is merely a matter of choosing your platform. Mel Robbins at CNN said as much in covering the story:

Tweets are like roaches; once you spot a contrarian or sarcastic reply, you know there are hundreds more right behind it, and there’s no way to exterminate them. If you need to control the conversation, use Facebook. On Facebook, you can delete individual comments that do not contribute to your overall social goal. On Twitter, the users are in control.

Sorry, but I have to disagree. Users are out of control across the board, and they always will be. Once social media provided a public forum for self-expression, including brand complaints, control went out the window.

Yes, you can delete individual comments on Facebook. This neither stops the conversation nor controls it. It simply moves it. The rage of an Internet commenter whose posting has been censored not only increases, but also spreads. “They censored me, those N^#%*$#@^!!!” becomes a motivating force driving even more negative commentary on the original (and often also on other) platforms. The idea that you can delete something and it just goes away is both outdated and naive.

Going Viral

Think about how many stories in the past few years have talked about a brand tweeting something questionable and deleting the original only to have screencaps of the offending tweet go viral in response. Just ask JP Morgan Chase, famous for the billions of dollars in fines it incurred from the financial meltdown. Last November they asked Twitter followers to post career advice questions to them. The predictable result was responses like these:

This is the sort of thing that makes management run screaming when social media comes up. The problem is that you cannot ignore it now. People, millennials especially, are demanding more and more to engage on the platforms they choose. So how do you keep from becoming an object lesson for others? There is, as with face to face interaction, no 100% guaranteed way but there are some simple things to keep in mind that can make that the lowest probability.

Online Conversation

Being Prepared

Realize that your perspective, no matter how rock solid it may seem to you, is far from the only one. Be prepared for differing opinons and plan how you will engage with them before you kick off your campaign or hashtag. Being prepared is vital, and while you should hope for the best it is always good business to have a plan in place should the worst occur.

Keep the conversation on track. In a case like this one being more specific would have helped to keep things in line. There is a big difference between “tag yourself in a photo” and “tag yourself in a photo with a smiling officer” for instance.

Engage honestly. I’ve got to give credit to Commissioner Bratton on this one. The New York Daily News reports his response as follows:

Police sources indicated the NYPD brass will not discipline anyone for the social media disaster and cops have yet to identify the official behind the epic fail.

Bratton said people were still welcome to express their feelings via the department’s Twitter feed.

‘Send us your photos, good and bad,’ he said. ‘I am a strong supporter and advocate of social media.’

Give up the illusion. You do not and can not control the conversation online. Brand journalism and communications today are like pro sports. There is always room for an upset or a spectacular play.  Also just like pro sports, solid strategy and good planning can pave the way to a win.

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