The NYPD, on Tuesday, reached out to citizens and encouraged them to share pictures with department officers via Twitter using the hashtag #myNYPD. Though there were many who shared positive pictures of police officers who put their life on the line for community service and who were considered beacons of justice, a dark side of the police department emerged from this exercise. A reaction I cannot imagine was not expected – especially with an organization in the news for controversial practices, racial profiling, using unnecessary force and oppressing free speech.

Crowds of citizens welcomed this opportunity to highlight cases of police misconduct, racial discrimination and police atrocities against the protestors of the Occupy movement, all using the same #myNYPD hashtag. The backlash prompted a statement from the department,

“The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community. Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city,” said Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster.

Sure, if the intention of the campaign was to test the pulse of the citizens they serve, they did get a lot of feedback, but it does not seem like that was the goal of this campaign. Using the crowd simply as a PR machinery is never a good idea. CNN reported that Tweeters all over the country used similar hashtags to mock their local police.

There are some serious lessons that emerge from the #myNYPD campaign for anyone who wants to engage an audience, online or offline 

Crowd action can change an organization’s fortunes. For better or for worse. Are you prepared for all kinds of reactions? Creating a citizen movement that will strengthen your organization is critical and requires strategic thinking – but can be very powerful when done right.

It’s the people, stupid, As the curtain dropped on CSW Global 14 in Singapore, a great meeting of practitioners, early adopters and cautious onlookers, all enthusiastic about the crowd economy – one common theme emerged – people make the movement. Your engagement with your stakeholders and community is not a switch that can be turned on at a moment’s notice. Rather it is a well-thought out, rooted mindset that emerges from the mission, values and goals of the organization. With the NYPD, there was was obviously a higher priority than a social media campaign right now- getting their act together. 

Crowdsourcing is NOT simple or easy. Many believe crowdsourcing is simple and easy enough to just bring on when needed. That could not be more wrong, as shown by the NYPD outreach fiasco. They wanted social media love, but received criticism and mockery instead.

You can control how it starts. This is the most important piece of control that organizations have. The start. Before you start actively engaging the crowd, you need to make it all about them and not about your organization, This is where the NYPD stumbled. They focused on getting some mileage out of the campaign instead of addressing citizen concerns.

But not how it ends. You have a hashtag or you have started a campaign or you have invited response. You don’t own anything else beyond this point and it takes a solid understanding and nurturing of your community to even begin to get results you expect. Remember garbage in – garbage out.  

The good part – the NYPD is no longer is in any doubt on its performance review.