Kansas Governor Provides Good P.R. Lesson

You’ve probably heard the story by now. Emma Sullivan, a high school senior participating in a Youth in Government program, tweeted the above while listening to Kansas governor Sam Brownback speak last week.

The governor’s staff, like those in the service of many modern political figures, monitors social networking sites to evaluate the public perception of their policies and campaigns. For politicians and their advisers, understanding how they are being received by citizens gives them insight on how they need to adapt. Facebook and Twitter are perfect environments for gathering such information. At least that’s the idea.

Unfortunately, when a member of Brownback’s staff discovered the negative mention of his employer by an 18-year-old student, the situation was handled quite poorly. His deputy communications officer forwarded the tweet to two staffers, including Niomi Burget, Brownback’s assistant director of scheduling. Burget forwarded it to Deborah Brown, the state coordinator for the Youth in Government program in which Sullivan was participating. Brown passed it on to Sullivan’s high school principal, Karl Krawitz. Krawitz chose to deal with the perceived problem by calling Sullivan into his office and demanding that she issue a written apology to the governor.

The governor himself did not attempt to infringe on her right to free speech, nor did anyone on his staff formally request an apology. Regardless of whether they intended to reprimand her or to teach her a lesson for her disrespectful but seemingly weightless comments, the consequences, blown far out of proportion, and the subsequent media reaction to this event, portrayed his office in a bad light.

This provides some talking points, not only for the discussion of First Amendment rights, but also on the topic of handling public relations through social media.

In my view, Brownback’s office could have handled this in a couple of ways.

For one, they could have recognized the relative insignificance of the tweet in question and simply ignored it. It was sent by a highschooler from the suburbs with a following that, at the time, amounted to less than 70 people. That number is minuscule to begin with, and it gets even smaller when you consider that a good portion of her Twitter followers were probably fellow students, most of whom were likely either disinterested, not old enough to vote, or both.

If they wanted to take a more proactive approach, the governor’s office could have responded to Sullivan’s tweet in the public forum that is Twitter with an acknowledgement of her displeasure and an offer to hear her objections with the governor’s policies in more detail. In the best case, it would have been a response directly from governor Brownback. For example, “Would love to hear why you feel negatively about my positions & would be open to discussing them with you further via email.” He could have shown appreciation for the fact that a student had taken an interest in politics, whether she supported him or not. He may have actually gained supporters for responding in such a manner. I know I, for one, appreciate when a public figure, whether it’s a professional athlete, a politician, or a journalist, takes the time to intelligently discuss issues with their critics.

Instead, they chose to forward Sullivan’s comment like a chain email, and once the media got the story, social networks were ablaze with support for Sullivan and her right to free speech. Brownback, on the other hand, was slandered and defamed by thousands of comments posted by potential voters. His name and reputation, regardless of what he goes on to achieve, will be forever tarnished by a public relations gaffe.

This is yet another example of some facts that have been increasing in credence among business professionals: social media, used correctly, can be a powerful tool for building up a positive reputation and keeping good relations with a client-base intact. It can also be extremely detrimental if it is ignored or utilized clumsily.

But don’t let mistakes like the egregious one by Brownback’s staff scare your business or organization away from the use social networks. Rather, let this inspire you to take advantage of the profound value and exposure they can provide. As I write this, Emma Sullivan’s Twitter account now has 15,472 followers. Governor Brownback’s has just 3,434.

If you haven’t yet built up a strong social media presence for your business, I encourage you to read this article. If you have, read this one for some advice on exercising caution before posting your tweets, status updates, and other comments.