Watching a hashtag spoil

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake mock those talking in hashtags in this great spot.

More than a few times, I’ve found myself in the uncomfortable position of selecting a hashtag.

The key goal to selecting a hashtag is hoping people will use it. And use it as you intended.

Without the necessary foresight, a hashtag can go bad in an instant.

Case in point this week is Carleton University’s upcoming 75th anniversary in 2017, and its very public launch of its website and branding #DistinctlyCarleton. The University even devoted a full page to the campaign.

I’m sure the communications folks were hoping to read lovely comments from faculty, staff, students and alumnae when they tweeted about the relaunch:

Perhaps these are the kinds of tweets the Comms Department was hoping to see:

Not what they intended

Sadly, a hashtag hijacking can begin in the blink of an eye. The rebrand quickly became an opportunity to air grievances with the school:

Even CUPE 4600, the union that represents contract instructors, adjunct professors and teaching assistants*, got into the act:

Criticism moves beyond social media

Worse than having your hashtag spoil is when it goes beyond the twittersphere, and gets picked up by traditional media, and is amplified to a broader audience.

The Ottawa Sun picked up the story pretty quickly. Carleton PhD student Kevin Partridge told the Sun:

“I think it was a pretty constructive articulation of many different issues that many different people are having… What this indicates is that there are a lot of people within the university and community being left out of these discussions so when they’re given an opportunity like this they pour it on.”

The next morning, CBC’s morning radio show Ottawa Morning interviewed a marketing specialist to talk about the campaign that had gone wrong.

Consider the worst-case scenario

The bottom line, when you decide to go with a new hashtag as part of a promotional campaign, ask yourself ‘how could this be turned against us?’

Communications professional, media scholar and freelance journalist Kyle Brown wrote about the hashtag hijacking at Carleton. He points out that its essential for a university with many stakeholders to “know the temperature” of relationships with various stakeholders.

Brown also points out how essential it is to have a plan in place if things backfire:

“Identifying risks and developing a crisis communication strategy is crucial. This will help ensure you’re not caught off-guard, but also spell out how to respond and what direction the campaign will go in if things start to get derailed. For Carleton, they immediately shut everything down, and have stopped using the hashtag, which is likely attempting to quell the others who are using it. It’s better to be proactive and decide how you will respond to criticism (especially if you’ve identified what topics people might come at you for) and keep control of the message. Right now, the meaning behind #DistinctlyCarleton is completely out of the hands of the school, and the message is overwhelmingly harming their reputation.”

* As a contract instructor in Carleton University’s School of Journalism, I am by default a member of CUPE 4600

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