Carleton’s Anniversary Hashtag Gets a Makeover

Launching a hashtag to promote your brand often provides great potential to expand your reach, connect with fans, and use the power of the masses to help build up reputation. But as Ottawa’s Carleton University found out today, it also provides rife opportunity for subversion.

The school launched a new public awareness campaign this morning to celebrate its 75th anniversary, that follows the theme “Distinctly Carleton.”

As part of the launch, Carleton revealed a new website (as well as a special campaign page) and unveiled massive portraits of famous alumni like former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, writer Lynn Coady, journalist Nahlah Ayed, and Ravens basketball star Philip Scrubb, among others.

Part of the launch also included a hashtag campaign.

It didn’t take long for students and faculty to give the hashtag an entirely different meaning.

The university’s pre-announcement of the campaign launch also allowed for a coordinated subversion by members of CUPE Local 4600, which represents contract instructors and teaching assistants at the school, by holding handwritten notes expressing frustration with university administration. The union sent out its first #DistinctlyCarleton tweet just three minutes after Carleton began to tweet live updates from university president Roseann Runte’s speech.

Hashtag hijacking is nothing new, and provides an easy opportunity for unhappy stakeholders to share their complaints and frustrations in a very public forum.

Canadians have shown they are quite adept at carrying out these online takeovers. Telecom giant Rogers felt the wrath of angry customers when it tried to use a hashtag – a paid, sponsored one at that – to help launch Rogers 1 Number. Prime Minister Stephen Harper once hosted a Q&A with Canada’s favourite astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and looked to Twitter for questions. He ended up being inundated with critical questions touching on topics from spending to tar sands.

Even Carleton’s cross-city rivals, the University of Ottawa, saw their hashtag be re-appropriated by unhappy students. Ottawa launched a “Defy the Conventional” campaign at the start of this academic year, and have felt a steady stream of criticism since, so the possibility shouldn’t have been a surprise to Carleton staff.

In the end, the hashtag campaign will continue to live on as a noble concept – and when executed well, can be quite successful. It can help improve product awareness at a launch, improve your relationship with your customers/constituents (especially if you move away from overly corporate messaging) and increase sales. Despite the fears, hashtag campaigns are not necessarily a marketing tool that companies, or public institutions, should shy away from.

This year alone, the White House ran a great hashtag campaign titled “#GetCovered,” where users sent in stories about securing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Pepsi ran #LiveForNow. While Charmin’s genius #tweetfromtheseat is still active today, a year after it launched.

There are still some considerations to take into account, though. For one, evaluate whether or not you have a large group that is unhappy with your brand. Universities in general are often balancing a number of relationships (be it with student unions, clubs and organizations, campus media, faculty, or staff), so knowing the temperature of those relationships beforehand is crucial to help ensure you don’t end up with your hashtag meaning something totally different than you conceived.

The other, more important part of preparation is having a plan in place in case 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.

Please share your comments, thoughts, and questions below! Have a good case study of either a campaign gone wrong or gone right? Share it in the comments section or on Twitter!

Oh, and because it wouldn’t be a hijacked hashtag without a little Ron Burgundy, here you go:

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