Teen Twitter Flap: A Governor’s PR Staff Learn a Lesson the Hard Way

By on Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The blogosphere and media have had a field day lampooning Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s staff for their heavy-handed response to a rude tweet by a teenager. In case you missed the hubbub, Emma Sullivan, an 18-year-old participating in a Youth in Government program, tweeted a rude comment about the governor for her friends, from the back of a pack of youth he was speaking to. The governor’s staff (an assistant scheduling secretary for the governor) saw the tweet and contacted the Youth in Government program to let them know it might have come from one of the students attending the program.

The staff running the program contacted her high school principal, who demanded Sullivan apologize, in writing, to the governor (and offered talking points to help). Sullivan famously refused, and a media firestorm erupted after her older sister alerted the press. The Governor’s spokesperson got sucked into the fray. Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Sullivan’s tweet “wasn’t respectful”, that it takes mutual respect to “really have a constructive dialogue” and “It’s also important for students to recognize the power of social media, how lasting it is. It is on the Internet.” More than one blogger is now calling for Jones-Sontag and others on the governor’s staff to lose their jobs.

Today, the Governor apologized to her and said his staff had overreacted. And her school district said she will not be required to write an apology letter, to boot. After all, there is that pesky thing called freedom of speech out there, that extends, to even teenagers on Youth in Government programs. What exactly did the Governor’s public relations staff do wrong? And what can we learn from their mistakes?

Have the right people keeping an eye on social media and news mentions, and determining responses, if any. As communicators, we all monitor social media and news for information and commentary about the organizations and people we represent. That’s part of the job description these days. The governor’s staff didn’t go wrong in doing monitoring – which is an important part of understanding criticism and dialogue on issues for any elected official – but in how they reacted to what they found.

Why was an assistant scheduling secretary (who should be worrying about meal planning, security details, or calendar management) seizing the reins to do response on a communications issue?!  Why did an assistant scheduling secretary for the governor have so much time on her hands that she could monitor a high schooler’s twitter feed and locate the contact for the Youth in Government program and contact them about that Twitter feed?

There’s no harm in monitoring social media, but this got blown out of proportion right away. The people doing monitoring should be communications staff, who can evaluate what comes in. Not someone who is going to react with emotion or take things into their own hands. If you respond at all to criticism in social media or the press, it should be well thought out and strategic, not haphazard.

Evaluate the situation. This was a snarky teenager being mouthy in front of her 61 followers on Twitter, looking for a grin. This was not a reporter with ethics or a reputation hinging on accuracy. Nor was it a political opponent with an axe to grind. This was a teen who enjoyed tweeting about Twilight way more than spouting negativity about the governor – about whom she sent one tweet.

It was a teenager. Annoying. Yes. Make you wish her mama taught her some manners, or at least to be smart enough to tweet she was mad the Governor took away all public funding for art instead of just tweeting snark? Sure. But a bona fide PR problem to be worried about? No. This was a kid standing at the back of a pack of kids during a speech, who offered a virtual snide side comment – to her friends – the equivalent of an elbow rib cage jab. Any response from a governor’s PR staff to that type of comment – looks petty, bullying and like a lion stomping on a molehill.

Don’t let your response become a PR problem. The heavy-handed response from Brownback’s staff quickly escalated into a full blown crisis. By contacting the program, and also engaging with the school district – both of whom rely on relationships and funding from the state – there’s a sense of “going to teach a lesson to that obnoxious kid” in the staff’s response. Sullivan’s twitter feed now has 12,436 followers.

These were public officials or people acting on behalf of public officials – yet no one seemed to consider how the public might feel about the governor’s staff and educators spending time stifling free expression from a teenager – who was in reality – just mouthing off with her friends. The logical response from the public is – this is what the governor’s staff are spending time worrying about?  Really? This is what educators and school principals are spending their time worrying about? Come on. No wonder the public got mad. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. A good PR person could have spotted this disaster a mile away.

Let go of negative social media comments. Admittedly, “letting go” of a negative comment can be tough to do. But you have to have a thick skin if you are in the social media space, where anyone can say anything, regardless of age, education, position in life, or opinion – it’s the beauty and the disaster of the whole social media enterprise.

“Letting go” of a negative comment can be especially difficult if the comment is tagged to an official Twitter name (which Sullivan didn’t do) and shows up in “mentions” for an official account. But elected officials will have to weather much worse browbeating than a little steam from a teen – that’s a lesson Sam Brownback’s staff have learned all too well.

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