It all started with an innocent enough tweet from the New York City Police department Twitter account. @NYPDnews, the official account of the NYPD, tweeted something seemingly positive on April 22nd encouraging followers to hashtag photos with themselves and members of the NYPD. The photos would be featured on their Facebook page. On the surface, and for many brands, this type of social interaction is commonplace and a perfectly reasonable way to interact on social media.

It wasn’t long before the hashtag become a trending hashtag and the account was blowing up with replies. Most of the photos* that were coming in were not of smiling fans of the NYPD, but rather photos of borderline and actual police brutality. The #myNYPD hashtag was suddenly popular for all the wrong reasons. While the hashtag takeover did seem to spur an international revolution on social media against police brutality, it still doesn’t explain the lack of thinking behind such an impromptu campaign.

*It should be noted the majority of the photos were not recent, and many were taken during the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2011.

Commissioner Bill Bratton, knowing that the negativity of the campaign was an undeniable reality, has said he welcomes the attention. Additionally, he shared that no one from the social media team will be held accountable.

This should at least spur an internal conversation and serve as a lesson to other municipalities using social media. From a strictly marketing point of view, this was handled with a tad of recklessness; unless of course Bratton is right and it doesn’t matter.

Police departments, elected officials and other polarizing figures on the public payroll cannot follow the same social rules that apply to brands. Well, they can, but it is advisable that they do not. The #myNYPD hashtag was created to encourage positive sharing and interaction with followers and residents of NYC. Any social media intern could have seen the oncoming negative effects of this. It wasn’t the campaign that was a bad idea, it was the hashtag that was a bad idea. Frankly, any hashtag attached to the campaign would have ended up being used the same way. They would have been better off funneling people to Facebook where responses could have been filtered.

Before you get all squirrely, I’m not advocating a police state that filters out free speech. My place is not to evaluate the political implications of bringing possible police injustice to light. The counter point to that is the NYPD is not some small town police department looking for attention. They are constantly targeted by the Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous movements. They had to know that giving out a hashtag to be hijacked was like jumping into the lion pit covered in gravy. Lions love gravy.

Brands routinely expect their hashtags to be hijacked, but usually those hijackings just result in a litany of off color jokes (which I’m guilty of doing from time to time). Brands rarely get the virulent type of responses that a hashtag created by a police department or government entity would get. Little Debbie does not get a ton of responses from people allergic to snack cakes. If they were to occasionally force feed their snack cakes to those people, then perhaps they might. Such is the case with the NYPD. Like Bratton said, “Often times police activities are lawful, but look awful”. The NYPD, as proven, does not make snack cakes.

There really isn’t a lesson for brands here, in case you were looking for one. Brands don’t generally have hacker organizations after them for allegations of government oppression. While I believe that the reaction was telling and helps further the movements of both Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous; there is a lesson here for government agencies using social media (unless they are supporting revolution, which I doubt). That lesson is to not use hashtags unless you are prepared for the fallout. It is not about picking the perfect hashtag, it is about maintaining the flow of social interaction. If you want to run a positive campaign, don’t make it so simple to turn it negative.

There were numerous ways the NYPD social media team could have made this a positive, fun campaign; rather than one that turned into an expose on police oppression around the world. If anything we can all learn from the #myNYPD debacle, is the true power of a simple hashtag.