CNN #AskACop – Lessons in Hashtag Disasters

Twitter has seen its fair share of marketing mishaps over the last year, from celebrities to executives to companies jumping the gun on the use of hashtags and tweet chats without putting much thought or preparation into them beforehand. Last week Topps Company’s #RockThatRock campaign received some backlash, and simultaneously we saw CNN create some controversy with their #AskACop hashtag, designed to create discussion between viewers and cops during its special, CNN Tonight‘s #CopsUnderFire.

Instead of encouraging a civil, genuine conversation between police officers and civilians about recent U.S. protests, many Twitter users took the opportunity to vent their frustrations and anger, asking sarcastic questions or posting hate tweets such as, “DEAR ALL COPS: The jury is in. Twitter hates you. You will never be welcome here. GIVE UP & GO AWAY.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 5.21.27 PM (1)Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 5.21.04 PM The hashtag trended well into the next day before dying out, and in the end doesn’t seem to have had the result and impact CNN was hoping for. So how could they have prepared for this better, anticipating the chatter that resulted and perhaps even preventing the negative discussions that took place? Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you’re considering launching a hashtag for a marketing promotion:

  1. Know your audience and the environment. Over the last few weeks discussions around the police force nationwide have been heated, emotional and contentious. While it’s important to create dialogue around such a serious issue, it’s equally important to be aware of the kinds of comments that are likely to come up and dominate the discussion. If you think the negative, unproductive comments may outweigh the value of a real discussion, perhaps it’s best to put the program on hold.
  2. Pick the right venue. Second to knowing your audience is knowing how best to engage them. Since Twitter is a soapbox where people feel empowered and emboldened to take strong stances and attack public figures, perhaps it wasn’t the best platform to engage the audience for this show. For example, rather than asking Twitter users to publicly ask questions, the outlet could’ve had viewers DM the handle or send questions via email in advance so that the on-air police officers could actually address real, serious questions coming through.
  3. Create a crisis plan. Being a media outlet that encourages poignant discussions, CNN likely didn’t view this as a crisis. That said, any marketing team for any company – media outlet or not – should have a social media crisis plan in place that anticipates any issues and outlines action items to mitigate them.

Interestingly, some media outlets are now saying the #AskACop hashtag might’ve been created to do exactly what it did – stir up controversy and emotion in order to increase viewership of the show rather than create a meaningful conversation between the audience and its hosts. What do you think? Twitter backfire, or Twitter stunt?