How NOT to Hashtag in Twitter

On December 1, 2010, in public relations, by Barbara Nixon

[UPDATE 12.06.2010: Jen Zingsheim and Mark Story had a discussion of this blog post
in last week’s Media Bullseye Radio Roundtable podcast.]

I started this morning just like I start most mornings, with a cup of chicory coffee and a review on my Samsung Epic of what’s been written on Twitter overnight. Things looked pretty calm and innocent until I saw this tweet from CNN Breaking News:

My first reaction to the tweet was: “How horrible for the girl!” Then I reread the tweet. My feelings for the plight of the girl intensified when I noticed that the CNN Breaking News Twitter account had used the hashtags #dead and #raped. My stomach actually turned.

Within seconds of me reading the tweet, I responded with this:

It just seemed best to contact CNN Breaking News directly with my displeasure, rather than complaining about it without “talking” directly to them; I have yet to receive a response, but I wasn’t really expecting one via that account. I also DM’d (direct messaged) a CNN producer to let him know about the firestorm of complaints about the inappropriate hashtags.

Let me back up a little.

  • If you’re new to Twitter, a hashtag (what we used to call a pound sign) is often used in front of a keyword in a tweet. It helps people to search for tweets with that keyword in them.
  • For example, when I am watching a NASCAR race, I will set up a search in TweetDeck to find all tweets with the keyword #NASCAR in them. This allows me to see tweets from people who are interested in the same topic as I am — without having to follow them. When the NASCAR race is over, I simply close the column in TweetDeck, and I no longer see #NASCAR tweets, except from those whom I am already following.

Let’s get back to the tweet I saw this morning from CNN Breaking News. I have several issues with the way this tweet was written, and they all revolve around the use of the hashtags. If I saw the tweet without any hashtags, I would have likely clicked on the link to read the story and not had the gut-wrenching reaction I did.

  • Why would CNN want people to search for the terms #dead or #raped? I could understand it if it was a different tweet with #CyberMonday or #WikiLeaks hashtagged. But “dead” and “raped”? Who actually searches for those terms in Twitter? And why would CNN want to be associated with this? As I mentioned in my tweet to them, it seemed insensitive.
  • Was CNN trying to create a trending topic? If so, those words are not ones I’d ever want to see trend. Ever.
  • And as for “#N.C.” — when hashtagging in Twitter, you have to use one word or phrase, with no punctuation, or the hashtag doesn’t work as planned. The link will only “catch” the letters/numbers that are right after the hashtag. If there’s a period, the link stops. So if someone clicks on #N.C., the search will return tweets where people have hastagged the letter N alone. Not very useful, no?

So what’s the lesson to be learned from this morning’s tweet from @CNNbrk?

Think carefully about what words you hashtag in a tweet. Will clicking on the keyword be beneficial for your readers? If not, then you can still use the words (if they are necessary to get your message across), but avoid the hashtag.

What are your thoughts about the @CNNbrk #hashtagfiasco?

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