You may have already heard of 18-year old Emma Sullivan, the Kansas high school senior who attended a Youth in Government event and afterward tweeted the following to her 65 followers:
“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,”
Governor Brownback’s staff informed the YiG program. No one is reporting what it was they said or asked for but the repurcussions of the communication have been reported. A lot.
Basically Sullivan was scolded at school and told to write an apology to the Governor. The prinicpal even gave her talking points to include in her letter. Sullivan has refused to submit the letter and in the meantime Sullivan’s twitter following has grown to 6000.
It’s hard to say how often posts here will just be admonishing lectures on how to properly handle politician’s PR in the social media age, but, it must be said, this is a gargantuan failure on the part of Brownback’s staff and I assume someone, maybe someone obscure, will lose their job over it–and they probably should.
What did Brownback’s staff hope to achieve by tattling on Sullivan’s immature tweet to 65 friends? Did they hope that YiG would be more vigilant in the future in preventing mouthy teenagers from attending events? Were they hoping for a written apology? An apologetic tweet?
Oh, did I mention that Sullivan didn’t actually make any offending remarks at the event? Because she didn’t. The tweet, she says, was just a joke to her friends who had been discussing what they would say to Brownback if given the chance.
All we really know about the staff’s intention is that Brownback’s spokesperson, Sherriene Jones-Sontag has said that it takes mutual respect “to really have a constructive dialog” and that Sullivan’s tweet wasn’t respectful.
Well, boohoo. It was a tweet.
It’s true that the tweet wasn’t respectful, but so what? Twitter, for all the things it is good for, is not the forum for any serious kind of “dialogue” respectful or otherwise. If Sullivan had wanted a respectful dialogue, maybe she would have said something in person. If Brownback had wanted to start one after the fact, he certainly could have located Sullivan in person and done so.
And what kind of level of respect was Sullivan accorded? Her tweet was immature and insulting, so maybe she was treated with the level of respect she deserved, but, as we all know, two wrongs don’t make a right. One does not mandate that an adult write a letter of apology and also complain about people not being “respected.” An apology, as Sullivan has noted, should be sincere or not done at all; to command an apology is to infantalize her, to disrespect her opinion, or simply to cast her as someone who could have their feelings, opinions, or actions dictated to. Jones-Sontag seems to have confused “respect” with “honor” and she feels that her employer wasn’t treated with the right amount of deference–a level of deference, by the way, that neither he nor any elected officials deserves. Brownback works for Sullivan and the other citizens of Kansas, not the other way around. And, as a public persona, and as a politician he has volunteered himself for ridicule. It’s part of his job and, however crude the ridicule, it is constitutionally protected. His staff has made it look like he is thin skinned whiner. That’s bad PR for anybody, but especially for a Republican in today’s GOP field which loves to don the artifacts of hyper-masculine professions like ranchers and fighter pilots.
Brownback got more than he deserved when Sullivan started paying enough attention to his policies to form an opinion about them. A good PR team, if they wanted to engage Sullivan for some reason, should have thanked her for paying attention and asked her what it was specifically that made her think “he blows a lot.” Such a move would have reminded Sullivan that her Twitter account was searchable and that it was a tool for potentially reaching out to her elected representatives. It would also have let Sullivan know that her voice mattered and that Brownback’s crew was listening…not in a creepy gestapo sense, but in a responsive elected official way.
There’s no telling how Sullivan would have responded to such an invitation to dialog but given her actual restraint during the YiG event, I suspect it would have gone better than what has since transpired.
Of course, Brownback’s PR staff could have just ignored her, which, all things considered would have been a second best option to what they chose to do. What they’ve done instead is highlight that Brownback is not particularly tech savvy, that he’s sensitive to the remarks of teenagers, that he’s paternailistic and perhaps authoritarian. It may play well among some of his conservative plainsland voters, but not all of them.
In baseball they call these unforced errors.