Should the NYPD Even Do Twitter Marketing?

While experts say 'yes,' the stats suggest 'yikes'

Headshot of Christopher Heine

The New York City Police Department created the social media bedlam moment of the week on Tuesday when it asked Twitter users to share pictures of cops with the hashtag #myNYPD that could be featured on Facebook. The Finest's digital staffers didn't literally request warm, fuzzy photos—though that was certainly their intention—instead leaving what could be submitted to the imaginations of the Twittersphere. And boy, did they get what they didn't intend to ask for, generating a bevy of tweets with images depicting police brutality. The virtual mayhem yesterday even spread to Internet activists zeroing in on the Los Angeles Police Department, as they created a mock #myLAPD effort.

All of this begs the question: From a pure marketing perspective, should the NYPD and other big-city police departments participate in social media—particularly Twitter—in an Occupy era like other organizations do? After all, within the vast Twitterati exist legions of folks waiting to pounce on/hijack the five-o's messages. (We'll get to some hard data on those legions in a bit.)

"Police are supposed to be involved in their communities and by default social media can manifest as a digital version of community," said David Armano, global strategy director at Edelman Digital. "However, participation needs to come with a strategy. And in the case of law enforcement knowing that there's a lot of 'badvocates' out there, I recommend a 'listen-and-respond' model versus a 'marketing' model."

Tania Yuki, CEO of Shareablee, generally agreed. "But before the NYPD can go in and assume happy campers, they need to first start small and test the waters, and build strength from there," she said. 

Crimson Hexagon shared exclusive data with Adweek that clearly points to the NYPD's need for more intelligence. The analytics company, led by Harvard professor Dr. Gary King, is one of the few vendors that still has full access to Twitter's firehose (i.e., its technology can see every single tweet). The NYPD stepped into what could be described as a hornet's nest with its social photo endeavor.

Below is a look at the audience that the NYPD's tweet largely garnered. Compared to the overall Twitter population, according to Crimson Hexagon, these users:

  • were 581 times more likely to be interested in Occupy Chicago, interestingly;
  • were 180 times more likely to be interested in Occupy Wall Street;
  • were 128 times more likely to be interested in Wikileaks;
  • were 35 times more likely to be interested  in social justice;
  • were 35 times more likely to be interested in liberal politics.

Additionally, per Crimson Hexagon, there were 50,000 tweets about the police department's branding attempt on Tuesday alone. Given the many Occupy-police clashes in New York and beyond in recent years, it stands to reason that a good chunk of such Twitter readers and responders weren't big fans of the department. 

Still, Jehan Hamedi, strategic market development lead at Crimson Hexagon, said NYPD's social media staffers can successfully employ Twitter to improve their brand's image.

"I would be cautious, though," he said. "Whether you are a mom-and-pop shop, a large corporation or a police department, you should do your research first in terms of what you say, how you say it and whom you say it to. The NYPD needs to deeply understand what people care about and speak to it in a relevant and authentic way."

By no means is Hamedi suggesting the NYPD start cheerleading Occupy efforts on Twitter. "Propogate conversations around the department's many fantastic events," he recommended.

And to that end, the NYPD's social team is already marching forward with the following tweet, which sure trumps its strategy from the other day.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.