Gloves Off: Is the hashtag still relevant for brands?

As Twitter's hashtag celebrates its 10th anniversary, PRWeek reporters spar over whether it's still necessary for brands.

(L-R) Alison Kanski and Sean Czarnecki
(L-R) Alison Kanski and Sean Czarnecki

Sean Czarnecki, PRWeek’s corporate reporter

Are hashtags irrelevant to brands? Usually, but not always.

I can’t tell you how many times an executive has told me their "social-first" campaign uses a hashtag to appeal to millennials. It’s cringe inducing, like watching mom hit the dab at a wedding.

For every #Cupfusion and #LikeAGirl, there’s a tin-eared hashtag ripe for parody.

In 2015, Starbucks unleashed #RaceTogether, a grossly inappropriate campaign asking baristas to discuss race relations as they handed you your latte. That same year, SeaWorld tried opening the floor for questions with #AskSeaWorld. Trolls and animal activists proceeded to ravage the brand.

Successful hashtags, developed usually for a social (#IceBucketChallenge) or political cause (#MAGA), can build tremendous support and awareness. Used properly, these phrases can raise millions for medical research, or catapult a business man into the White House. And desperate for the same exposure, brands chase after that one magical hashtag like the Holy Grail.

But as JPMorgan (#AskJPM) and McDonalds (#McDStories) can attest: You can’t engineer virality. Not yet. In the meantime: Brands, take the hint and learn to read the room.

Alison Kanski, PRWeek’s public affairs and health reporter

Sure, hashtags can go awry. There are plenty of examples of hashtags being taken over by trolls or being used to berate companies -- think Harambe. But more often, we don’t hear about the hashtag successes (#successes) because they’re not newsworthy; they’re simply a useful PR tool that accomplished its job. A hashtag remains an easy way to track exactly how many people are talking about a brand, campaign, or event.

With more people expecting brands to weigh in on social issues, a brand jumping on a trending hashtag is the best way to get the company’s stance in front of people. It shows both that a brand is paying attention to the important issues of the moment (as in noticing a "trending" hashtag) and is transparent enough to talk about them in the public sphere. And who doesn’t love seeing a quick-thinking, transparent brand?

Hashtags need to be navigated cautiously. Go too far and you become the "how do you do, fellow kids?" meme. But starting a hashtag for that social campaign or jumping on a relevant trending hashtag isn’t a bad thing. There are the hashtag horror stories (#horrorstories), but no brand has ever been sunk because it used the wrong hashtag.

We want to know what PRWeek readers think. Take our poll: Is the hashtag dead?

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