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Why Companies Have Trouble Adapting To Twitter


Now to a story about unexpected consequences, which goes like this. The New York Police Department, like a lot of institutions, is trying to break into the world of social media. So they made up a hash tag - #myNYPD - and asked people to post photos of themselves with police officers. They got some pictures of smiling cops and citizens.

But the hash tag generated more ideas of cops doing things like holding down a protester or knocking over a bicyclist. To talk more about this, I'm joined now by Zeynep Tufekci of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Welcome to the program.


MARTIN: So the NYPD has been trying to get into the world of social media more aggressively recently. What went wrong with this particular effort?

TUFEKCI: Well, what went wrong is that social media doesn't function like old-style public relations, where you could just push a message and not expect to hear back. What happens is, if people have something they want to say to you, they will say it back to you.

This is not the first time this happened. McDonalds tried the same thing with #McDStories as a hash tag and in fact, they paid to promote it. And people told their own McDonald's stories that were far from flattering to McDonald's. So this is something that is a reality in the 21st century. If people want to talk back to you, and you wade into the places where they can talk back, they will. It doesn't work like television.

MARTIN: Last year, the financial services firm JPMorgan Chase created the hash tag #AskJPM. And they found themselves hit with a deluge of negative questions along the lines of - did you always want to be part of a vast corrupt criminal enterprise or did you break bad? So again, what are we seeing - the same kind of mistakes being repeated by corporations when it comes to social media?

TUFEKCI: Well, one way to look at it as mistakes, from a public relations point of view. But if you look at it from a civic point of view, it's actually - rather than mistakes, it's an opportunity for reality of perception to break through. They could learn from this, just like J.P. Morgan could learn from this, and McDonald's can learn from this. The fact is there are a lot of people who want to talk back to these companies. So there's something really interesting going on.

So instead of firing the person who started this campaign, maybe they should be thanking them for showing them a problem. And its very stark - yes, unpleasant. I understand why it's unpleasant for an institution. But it's also an opportunity if the people running the institution look at it and say, whoa, what just happened. Let's think about this.

MARTIN: Zeynep Tufekci is on the faculty at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. She also teaches at the University of North Carolina. Thanks so much, Zeynep.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.