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?