Emma Sullivan vs. Sam Brownback: A marketing case study

The biggest screwup out of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s office of late is easy: tattling on an 18-year-old to her high school for some juvenile comment she made on Twitter during a Youth in Government field trip to the capitol. I mean, seriously: Emma Sullivan says, to her mob of 60 whole Twitter followers, “Governor Brownback sucks.” Brownback’s staff runs to YinG and Sullivan’s school to say, “Waah! Your student is being mean!” And supposedly Sullivan is the immature one.

One thing Brownback’s office didn’t do wrong, although they’re taking some flak for it, was monitoring Twitter for mention of Governor Brownback. This isn’t creepy or paranoid–it’s actually marketing best practice. Online social media offers people, businesses, and organizations unprecedented access to the feelings and opinions of their target audiences. If you hear that people are criticizing you about a certain issue, you’re now able to reconsider your stance on it, make a note to address it publicly in the future, or even communicate with aggrieved individuals directly. Or if you see that some high-school student has tweeted that you suck, you can roll your eyes and say, “Nice. Really mature” and move on. (Or show some respect to a constituent and reply, “I’m sorry you feel that way. Why do you think the governor sucks?” Or be silly and reply, “No, YOU #blowalot… for tweeting about the governor when you could just ask him yourself. What can we do for you?” There are a hundred ways to handle it before you get to tattling.)

But there’s one comment from Brownback’s director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, that makes me think she’s completely ignorant of the functions of her own job:

That wasn’t respectful,” responded Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “In order to really have a constructive dialogue, there has to be mutual respect.”

1. When someone tells you you suck on Twitter, she’s probably not attempting to start a constructive dialogue–she’s probably just venting. And/or goofing around with her friends.

2. If you see it as something that could start a dialogue, that’s your job–not hers. She’s an aggrieved constituent; she’s not required to use a particular tone or demonstrate a certain degree of deference to get her voice heard. You are the director of communication, for sobbing out loud. Your educated knowledge of the art of communication should tell you that if you want a dialogue started, you have to start it, and if you want to be addressed respectfully, you have to show respect. Jones-Sontag’s response makes it sound like His Highness will only speak with if you bow to him first, and that just isn’t how elected officials work.

(And although it’s easy to paint Governor Brownback as the baddie here, I am willing to accept that he had no knowledge of all this before the shit hit the fan, if only because I’ve never worked with anyone above a managerial level who could pick Twitter out of a police lineup.)

The reason this entire exchange went to hell was that Jones-Sontag didn’t see Emma Sullivan as a constituent. Despite the fact that Sullivan is of voting age and a concerned, informed citizen of Kansas, Jones-Sontag saw her as a little girl who needed scolding for sassing her elders and treated her as such.

If the governor’s office had looked past the crude-ish language and contacted Sullivan directly, they might have learned that, for instance, she was frustrated by Brownback’s recent veto of public arts funding for the entire state, and that she wanted to bring it up while she had the chance to talk with him but was afraid that Youth in Government would punish her for asking a controversial question while everyone else was asking more superficial ones. I mean, holy crap. Those are significant issues, worthy of discussion–if you’re willing to see someone as an adult human being, “#heblowsalot” notwithstanding, and engage her thusly.

Taking Sullivan seriously would have been a great opportunity to address those issues, not to mention great publicity for handling the situation well and being respectful of a young constituent. Instead, they treated her like a stupid teenager and drew more attention to all of it than would have come if they’d just let it slide. Well fielded.

Oh, and 3. You tattled to her school. That is the one action you took. Seriously. Seriously? This is what they teach you in PR school? Or did you sleep through the section on recognizing and communicating with your publics? Man, kids these days, amiright?

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9 Responses to Emma Sullivan vs. Sam Brownback: A marketing case study

  1. LeftSidePositive says:

    His Highness will only speak with if you bow to him first,

    I was going too fast and accidentally read this as “His Highness will only speak with if you blow him first,” which I find both disturbing and strangely hilarious…

  2. EG says:

    she was frustrated by Brownback’s recent veto of public arts funding for the entire state, and that she wanted to bring it up while she had the chance to talk with him but was afraid that Youth in Government would punish her for asking a controversial question while everyone else was asking more superficial ones.

    You know what? If this is the vibe she got, than Youth in Government is seriously doing it wrong and is pointless. Any Youth in Government group worth its salt should be encouraging youth to care about important issues and to be willing to challenge officials on those issues. And anyway, she’s right. Brownback does suck, and the reason she cites is one of many.

    Personally, I think she should set up a twitter alert for any mentions of Sherrienne Jones-Sontag, and if when (with anyone associated with politics, you know it’s only a matter of time) she finds Jones-Sontag tweeting something vaguely “inappropriate,” I think she should tattle to her boss. It would only be fair.

  3. FortGeek says:

    LeftSidePositive: Iwasgoingtoofastandaccidentallyreadthisas“HisHighnesswillonlyspeakwithifyoublowhimfirst,”whichIfindbothdisturbingandstrangelyhilarious…

    Herman Cain for Governor!

  4. Anne M. says:

    I thought you might like to know that for the record Emma Sullivan was not demanded to apologize by her principal.

    http://voices.kansascity.com/entries/principals-tough-email-teen-tweeter-brownback/

  5. Jay Phoebe says:

    The reason this entire exchange went to hell was that Jones-Sontag didn’t see Emma Sullivan as a constituent. Despite the fact that Sullivan is of voting age and a concerned, informed citizen of Kansas, Jones-Sontag saw her as a little girl who needed scolding for sassing her elders and treated her as such.

    THIS. Weren’t we all just watching the Zack Wahls video again this week? Granted, his tone was different, but isn’t it suspish that a male young(ish)in who criticizes a politician is commended for his model citizenry almost every time I see it happen? I thought this with the Ruth Marcus piece you posted Friday: the vitriol seems to be directed at a young woman who dares to exercise her “freedom” of speech in a public setting, rather than at the content of an earnestly tame tweet.

  6. Molly says:

    First off, brown back does blow a lot. It would be great if his staff would monitor social media for concerned citizens, but his administration isn’t interested. I’ve tweeted and emailed many times blth anout the issues the student raised after the fact such as elimination of public funding for the arts but also issues such as the closing of social and rehabilitation services offices and didn’t even get a form response. What really should disturbs me about this story and all the coverage it has received is that it no one is talking about those issues. While it is bad form to tattle on a teenager to her principal about an immature feet the real travesty is an administration that holds corporate and special interests above those of citizens and in unresponsive to the concerns of the people.

  7. Sandy says:

    Anne M.: I thought you might like to know that for the record Emma Sullivan was not demanded to apologize by her principal.

    That’s… not what I’m getting from that link.

    It sounds like he didn’t threaten her with anything specific if she didn’t write a letter of apology, but he told her she needed to write one. Emphasis mine:

    The governor should know we did not force any letter of apology. There were no threats if she did not – they were not even discussed. We did not take her phone, imposed any sanctions, suspend her from school, removed her from any activity – nothing – simply write a letter of apology.

    There can be a semantics argument here, but imo whether he said “You have to” or “You need to” or “I want you to” or “You go” write a letter of apology, the fact remains he tried to get a written apology out of her.

  8. John Brown says:

    Born and raised in Kansas, this recent dust up was a sharp reminder of why I left Kansas
    shortly after becoming an adult. While in high school, I helped with an independent newspaper.
    The school authorities promptly confiscated all the copies they could lay their hands on and
    threatened the students involved with disciplinary action. A clear free speech issue and theft.
    As expected the ACLU was quite helpful in explaining the not so subtle legal issues involved
    and our property was returned. Yes, the paper was at times crude and the humor sophomoric.
    One cartoon depicted a school administrator crawling out of a toilet to apprehend students
    smoking in the restroom. What has Kansas learned about free speech in four decades ?
    Sadly little if anything. It remains the provincial backwater fascist state it was before.

  9. Athenia says:

    I’m sure if this PR person worked for a person of color or a woman in government, she would see that there are words that are much more hurtful than “sucks.”

    I’d like to see her go after every person who has said the n-word or c-word etc.

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