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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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 FollowTheMoney.org, 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.
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.