Social Media, Public Relations and What Not to Do

Screenshot of tweet reading "Bye Felicia! Large gathering at [red redaction line] broken up. #dontinviteus2urparty #StPatricksDay #LdnOnt #lpffa" and two images of revelers and police
Screenshot of the deleted “Bye Felicia” tweet, address omitted.
To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the London Police took to social media, spending the day tweeting out funny images and updates around their “Don’t Invite Us” campaign to curb student rowdiness in the city. This was all well and good until mid-afternoon, when one tweet boasting the shut-down of a student party used the phrase “Bye Felicia” and included the street address of the house party. Upon seeing the tweet, my reaction went from “hehe” to “cringe” to “…yikes, that’s offensive” in the span of about five seconds.

While this may seem like an innocuous (cute? sassy?) inclusion of a popular meme, the tweet raised eyebrows around the city, largely rooted in the racial origins of the “Bye Felicia” meme and the flippant public shaming of people being fined by police. Intentionally or otherwise, this tweet is wrapped up in some complex racial history that left many with a bad taste in their mouth. Shortly after posting, the tweet was deleted.

Now before you get all huffy about PC culture, censorship, buzzkill-a-trons, this isn’t a blog about naming and shaming bad behaviour (…well, not exclusively). I think there is a more interesting story here about digital public relations and the pitfalls of meme culture in social media market in a nonprofit/government environment.

To start, I think I see what they were going for here…

Cover of Gary Vaynerchuk social media book "Jab, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook"
Gary Vaynerchuk explains: “The perfect story is spun from your intimate knowledge of your history, your competition’s history, and increasingly, what you see going on in the world and what you discover your consumers want to talk about.”

I don’t believe the London Police social media manager was intentionally trying to offend anyone here and rather, it was a misguided attempt to playfully connect with a younger audience to promote a public safety messaging strategy aimed at reducing house parties and noise violations in the city during an notoriously (infamously?) rowdy holiday. Social media strategy guides the world over say you need to speak in the language of your target audience and there are tons of examples of companies building large audiences by being a little cheeky online, mocking others in playful ways with humorous memes, emojis and hashtags (looking your way, Wendy’s twitter account). I think the LPS was likely trying to channel some of this sass in an effort to be a bit controversial to get more retweets and spread their anti-house party message further and faster within the ~20 y/o population.

And perhaps that is a noble goal. But does the ends really justify the means in this case? Is doing ‘well’ on social media more important than the deeper cultural implications lurking behind the message?

This tweet feels a bit like a robbing Peter to pay Paul situation, in which an attempt to penetrate a notoriously difficult audience (university students) was made at the expense of fragile relations with existing racialized community members who will feel pretty uncomfortable with this encroachment and appropriation of subjugated language and culture by a state disciplinarian.

Credit where credit is due: the LPS apparently realized their mistake relatively quickly and deleted the tweet. This is a far better response to a questionable tweet than what organizations usually do in these situations: doubling down, attempting a public justification and/or promising to open an ‘inquiry’.

So what can we learn from this experience?

I think we need to pull back a bit here and learn something from this whole experience.

In my presentations about memes and social media marketing, the one message I repeat over and over again is that if an organization is going to use memes as a means to communicate with their target audience (which they should), they need to know not just how to use a meme, but what it means and the folding cultural layers that have resulted in the meme’s origin. Without knowing all three of these pieces, you risk exposing yourself as an interloper within the community and torching your credibility.

Know your history, know your meme

Cover of the movie "Friday," featuring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker
A meme is born…10 years later

For the “Bye Felicia” meme, we have to go back to 1995 and the popular film Friday, where the line originates. In the film, Ice Cube (of “F*** The Police” fame) and Chris Tucker (of…uh…’fame’? Those Jackie Chan movies?) are attempting to rid themselves of an “annoying” street involved drug addict, Felicia, who is attempting to secure some free marijuana from the duo. To shut down her requests, Cube and Tucker repeat the dismissive phrase “Bye Felicia” to indicate that the conversation is over and she should go.

The first thing to note here, regarding the future use of this meme, is that Friday is seen as a mainstream comedy film that points an inter-community satirical lens on life within “the hood,” aimed at providing a humorous alternative view of life within the margins from other ‘serious’ movies of the time, such as Boyz N The Hood (source: Oral History of Friday). With Hollywood being focused on telling predominantly “white” stories, from “white” perspectives, by “white” producers/artists/etc, this film was a not insignificant “space” made for voices that are otherwise not always heard.

How is the meme used currently?

Flash forward to the 2010s and suddenly “Bye Felicia” has re-entered common vernacular. The resurgence of the meme was (in part) driven by the return of Ice Cube to the big screen with the docu-drama Straight Outta Compton (2015) and two scenes that call back to the film Friday. Most significant, there is a scene involving a character (fan girl or prostitute, it’s not totally clear) identified as “Felicia” who is ejected from a hotel party after a confrontation with her boyfriend, followed by Ice Cube saying the iconic line. Not totally dissimilar from the Friday scene, this filmic moment is again tied to an objectified Black woman being cast aside for not being ‘worth’ the time of the male characters.

Built off the contextual meanings and deployment within these iconic scenes, “Bye Felicia” has evolved as a dismissive term used to disengage from those seen as annoying, frustrating or bothersome (often, but not always, women) and is predominantly spread on social media in text, hashtag and photo meme formats (source: Know Your Meme).

An aside on cultural appropriate and community relations

Screenshot of Steve Buscemi in the tv show "Community" with skateboard, backwards hat and captioned "How do you do, fellow kids?"
Me, rolling up on campus every day #YouthAppropriator

While I don’t necessarily have a problem with some of the cheeky St. Patty’s posts on LPS’ twitter account on the weekend, this specific tweet falls into a different category because of the historical origin and current deployment of the meme. At best, this tweet labels the party hosts and revelers as annoying or bothersome folk (which you may agree with), but for some racialized individuals, the tweet can be construed as a co-option of the cultural cache of a resistive film (and its associated vernacular) focused  on life of young Black American men. All of this is happening, of course, in the context of the broader police service struggling with some public missteps  in managing racism within the force, whether it’s the long-standing support of research-proven racially motivated carding or the discovery of a current officer appearing on social media in black face before they were hired by the LPS (see Editor’s note).  As such, you have an organization who haven’t had a great record in working with the black community in London then forcing themselves into a cultural space that was, in part, created to open space for Black voices within a white-dominated film industry.

Worse still, this is a meme rooted in mocking and corroborating the marginalized status of vulnerable women, especially those of colour, and to use it means not just condoning the dismissive status of these women but also directly supports the continued dissemination of this viral idea. As Richard Dawkins quips about viral ideas, they live or die based on our continued sharing of the idea, with ‘bad’ ideas dying off when they are no longer spread from person to person. By using the “Bye Felicia” meme, the LPS is not just normalizing the idea that marginalized women of colour are annoying, bothersome or worth less (and therefore fair game for deprecation), the deployment of the meme also supports the continued spread of these ideas, all just to find a clever way to ridicule some rowdy youth.

There is room to debate whether or not the usage of this meme by the LPS is offensive — as an academic, I enjoy these discussions — but within the realm of public relations, the answer should be pretty clear: “Bye Felicia” is a meme with a racial history and, as such, the LPS should have just steered clear from the beginning based on recent events. But even if we disagree whether or not the usage of this tweet was offensive, it is ultimately not our (specifically white people behind keyboards) place to determine if it is problematic. If the role of the LPS social media presence is to help build bonds between the police service and the broader community and parts of that community say this part of culture is off-limits, it is in their public relations interest to steer clear of this type of meme and do better the next time around.

But there’s another important question: should the Police be engaging in public shaming?

Another layer to this tweet was the inclusion of a street address identifying where the house party was and photos of party goers leaving the scene of the crime. I struggle with justifying this public disclosure by a law enforcement agency, particularly in a situation that doesn’t really have any legal proceedings. Would we be in support of the police tweeting out the license plate (and photo) of everyone they pull over and ticket? What about the house address of every domestic abuse call they respond to? Pics of every underage drinker caught? I fear this mass-publication of offenders only serves to further isolate and criminalize suspects, which could exacerbate the cycle of criminality as people with publicly accessible records on social media could be further stigmatized by potential employers.

While the police obviously operate in public and journalists are free (and some may argue encouraged) to report on any of those publicly occurring police actions, I’m not convinced there was a need to name and shame these kids publicly on Twitter. What’s more, by actively posting what parties have been shutdown, are they not just providing partiers with a live-updating list of where not to go and, by inverse, what parties are still active for them to attend instead? Sure, it could be argued that this prevents more people from continuing to show up, but I feel like there are better ways to achieve this objective than tossing it up on social media all willy nilly.

At the end of the day, the LPS Twitter account can and should be held to a higher standard

In a corporate environment, many would argue that the role of a social media marketer is to do whatever is legally possible to drive traffic and increase sales. But the same should not be said about a state institution, like a police service, whose role in our community is to serve, protect, and model citizenship. As such, social media engagements by state organizations (like a ministry or police service) should not just be evaluating content on whether or not it will get likes, but whether or not it accurately reflects the values of the service for which it represents. This means there are some forms of digital content and engagement strategies whose ends do not justify the means.

In this specific instance, I don’t think this tweet accurately represents the values of the London Police Service, nor do I think they would want to be associated with the type of interpretive message generated by a poorly-timed cultural appropriation. The lesson here, ultimately, is to do just what the website says — Know Your Meme. If you don’t know the history behind a meme, you likely shouldn’t be using it in any sort of official tweet.

Editor’s Note: The original draft made it appear that this officer was currently working for the police when the black face photo was taken, however as explained in the LFP article, the photo was taken before being hired by the LPS.