Case Study: Brownback Administration Shows How Not to Handle Dissent on Twitter

Update: Senator Brownback has apologized for the actions of his staff which he has characterized as an “overreaction.”  This is a commendable move, though it’s unclear if the apology will travel as far and wide as the original story (which I still saw circulating via social media this morning).

Emma Sullivan's Tweet About Gov. Sam Brownback

The Scene: A group of high school students is touring Topeka, Kansas and visits the Governor’s office.  After meeting briefly with Gov. Sam Brownback, a student by the name of Emma Sullivan jokingly tweets the following:

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot” | November 21, 2011

Rather than let the tweet die a quiet death virtually unseen in the vast sea of digital ether, Brownback’s Communications Director Sherienne Jones-Sontag decided to report Sullivan to her school and turn the entire event into a very public frackus that made the Governor of Kansas look like a moron wasting time with trifling matters and picking on a high school student.

Here’s a breakdown of why the situation was completely mishandled:

  1. It’s Unnecessarily-Inflammatory: Sullivan has less than 1,000 followers right now (many of which were likely added since the situation blew up), a Klout score of 18 – so virtually no one would have seen the tweet had Jones-Sontag not taken the utterly cretinous step of raising the issue.  Unsurprisingly, it’s now enshrined in Brownback’s Wikipedia page.
  2. It’s Off-Medium:  Had Sullivan *actually* said those things to Brownback, perhaps contacting the school administrators would have been appropriate.  However, Sullivan was speaking to her followers on Twitter which is a medium that exists outside of the space of everyday life and school.  If there was to be a response – it should have been back on Twitter where the original message was published.
  3. It’s Out-of-Touch: Sullivan is 18.  She’s a legal adult.  Tattling to the school she attends is down on all fours with calling the mother of a merchant you have a customer service issue with.
  4. It Gives the Advantage to the Opposition: Brownback’s staff basically handed the Democratic party a fabulous anecdote to use during the campaign to unseat Brownback that basically sums up all of their criticisms of his uber-conservative politics (with a pretty, young, idealistic face to deliver them).  It also insinuates that Brownback’s administration is actually worried about what high schoolers are tweeting about it.

I can think of a variety of ways the situation would have been handled instead:

  1. Ignore it: I’ve been online for nearly two decades and it’s taught me that it very infrequently pays off to respond to negative comments.  I understand well how hard it can be not to “feed the trolls,” truly I do – but particularly when one is trying to maintain an official posture.  What’s particularly important to note about this tweet was that it didn’t use any hashtags or the @govsambrownback Twitter name so it wouldn’t show up in anything associated with the governor on Twitter.  That makes it doubly-stupid to respond as it automatically elevates the level of attention the original tweet received.
  2. Use Humor Back:  Even someone with a room-temperature IQ could come up with a brief, witty message that expresses disagreement and points out the inappropriate nature of the tweet in question.  Why not “Thanks for visiting – we always enjoy a robust dialog with our constituents.”
  3. Engage the Dissenter: If you truly felt compelled to respond seriously, why not start a dialog on Twitter – ask questions of Sullivan that invite her to justify the tone of her comments and quantify what specifically she disagrees with in terms of the administration’s policies.  This wouldn’t be an optimal response, however, because it would be time-consuming.

Perhaps the worst part of the whole story, beyond the public relations faceplant, is that the principal of Shawnee Mission East Kansas High School Karl Krawitz forced Sullivan (again, a legal adult) to write a letter of apology to the Brownback administration (and provided her with talking points).

Here’s a potentially interesting twist to the story: according to, Krawitz is a Republican campaign contributor.  If that’s true, a GOP-er forcing an admittedly-liberal student to write a mea culpa letter to a GOP governor doesn’t look great for the party.

Governor Sam Brownback's Campaign Site "Under Construction"Sidebar 1: To give you a flavor for the level of sophistication of Sam Brownback’s operation – his website is literally “under construction” right now with a sloppy landing page displayed from November 2, 2010 when he won the gubernatorial election.  #Fail

Sidebar 2: Really Google? – You gave Google Fiber to Kansas?  C’mon.

13 thoughts on “Case Study: Brownback Administration Shows How Not to Handle Dissent on Twitter

  1. jen hardesty says:

    Brownbackistan has and continues to set the stage for his ultraconservative vomit. He is a BULLY…in all aspects! Little did my niece know what would happen when she walked into the principals office… he reemed her for her tweet, belittled her, threatened her, let her know she is in alot of trouble, and that her actions would be punishable.,,,noting reccommendations for college, and expelling her from journalism club. This is HIS embarrassment, and I hope the governors too!
    As for my niece and her sister (a top debator in the nation), they will continue to express their 1st admendment rights.

    “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” The dictator of OZ is Brownback.


  2. Erik Kowal says:

    Sen. Brownback holds backward views on (among other issues) evolution, support for the public education system, abortion rights, the constitutional right to privacy, gay rights, health care reform, drug policy, unrestricted free speech on the broadcast media, gun control, chemical weapons, drilling in ANWAR, the PATRIOT act, access to SRS services, taxation, the rights of individuals versus corporations, the Israel/Palestine question, separation of th echurch and state, and public funding for the arts. He was also a Christian evangelical prior to espousing Catholicism.

    He holds less extreme views on renewable energy policy, conflict minerals and genocide, the death penalty, and immigration reform (although he has flip-flopped on the latter). I actually approve of his recent attempt to shame Boeing into keeping its promise to create circa 7500 jobs in Wichita after it was ultimately awarded the contract to replace the Air Force’s refueling tankers.

    So — does his overall record amount to ‘sucking’, to use Emma Sullivan’s term?

    Whatever you may think about that, the decision of Sen. Brownback’s officials and Sullivan’s principal (all state employees) to pile in against Sullivan over her casually Tweeted remark is both crass and incomprehensible.

    If it emerges that Brownback personally approved their response before they went public, it will raise a large question mark over his judgment, his ego and his ability to prioritize his policymaking appropriately.


  3. Delphine Sultzer says:

    Hi – Just want to say that I agree, the most staggering thing about all this is how stupidly Jones Hyphen Sontag handled it. How in the heck did she get her job in the first place?


    1. Derek DeVries says:

      If I had to guess (given that there’s virtually no information about her online) I would say that she’s probably a long-time political campaign worker who may be savvy in the traditional world of politics, but not at all in the new digital paradigm.


  4. V.E.G. says:

    Brownback is a nice guy. Had his family not changed his name his name would have been Sam Brumbach. He is the extremely distant cousin of a Brumback in Colorado, my friend of mine from school in the West.


    1. Erik Kowal says:

      Unfortunately, V.E.G., that fellow who may well be a nice guy in his private life does not translate that niceness into his position as the current governor of Kansas. For instance, I fail to see how repudiating federal funding for Kansas’ implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act amounts to being nice to the citizens of that state. It is also not ‘nice’ to prioritize the welfare of corporations over that of individuals. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift.


  5. Robin Luymes (@SuperDU) says:

    Great article Derek. I’d call it a “new classic PR case study” that progressive brands and organizations understand but, apparently, many politicians (and their top advisers) do not.

    I’m guessing there are quite a few young, social media savvy staffers in Brownback’s administration who probably would have provided a great sounding board for Jones-Sontag before responding to the situation. Understanding the audience and the media would have led her to a different response. Perhaps she is among that group of communicators who still don’t understand new media, thinking that if something is “out there” that EVERYONE must somehow have seen it (or eventually will … which is partially true if it’s some piece of dirt that will make you un-electable).

    Another problem for practitioners in politically-driven communications is the need to win each and every debate point. If someone out there has said something incorrect (or something with which they disagree), they feel the compulsive, knee-jerk reaction need to “correct the record.” What they don’t realize, however, is that their attempt to win each tiny little skirmish may result in losing the bigger war (sorry for using military imagery).

    Recently, balanced news stories that placed my organization in a positive light attracted a few anonymous trolls who posted their (always) negative opinions. A leader here wanted to respond to the inaccuracies they had posted in the comments section. It was our job to check out what was being said, but also to educate internally about the nature of online reputation.

    Responding to trolls only eggs them on and creates more negative statements. Also, responding can lead to larger audiences and in some ways legitimizes the critics, despite their flawed facts or logic. Nothing we could say or do would change the fact that stupid logic is out there on the internet. It does underscore the need to create your own web presence where you clearly state who you are and what you believe (and provide your third-party supporters out there with the ammo they need to fight your battles for you! (Oh … dang … there I go with the guns and the fighting again!)


  6. Joe Everyman says:

    Sen. Brownback is not the sharpest tool in the shed and he obviously hires idiots who have no concept of the Constitution.

    This is a nation built on the Freedom of Speech, if you don’t understand, you absolutely deserve no position in government, even as a staffer.


  7. Ernie Roehn says:

    Brownsback used his staff brownshirts to bully a high school student reminiscent of Ernst Roehn’s Nazi brownshirts that would bully students that would not join the Hitler Youth or submit to their propaganda. So typical the Republican party e.g. not support public education as an educated middle, working, and poor class won’t buy into its fundamentalist conservative pro corporate ideology wanting them to remain NASCAR and t-bagger stupid and bigoted voters they appeal to in order to win elections.
    Then, has his lackey of a principal demand an apology for utilizing her right under the Constitution and Bill of Rights to free speech.
    She may have been rude and inappropriate in what she said, tweeted, or blogged, but it’s protected, perhaps not in the state of KKKansas, but we are U.S. Citizens first, and that trumps Oz.
    That’s another thing too. Republicans are smorgasbord Constitutionalists; you know the right to own a French WWII anti-tank gun, but not free speech if it goes against the party line. And the same goes for his Senate shill, Jerry Moran.


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