Sam Brownback Should Learn About Social Media PR From Emma Sullivan

by Eric Melin on November 28, 2011

Post image for Sam Brownback Should Learn About Social Media PR From Emma Sullivan

Or, How to Create a Social Media Crisis

You know its sad when a high school student has better PR people handling her than the governor of her state.

The Internet exploded this Thanksgiving weekend after 18-year-old Shawnee Mission School District high school student Emma Sullivan tweeted an offhand disparaging remark about Gov. Sam Brownback while he was speaking at a Youth in Government program last week in Topeka, Kan. From the back of the room, she tweeted on her phone: “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

She didn’t actually say anything to him in person, and later she said she was just joking with her friends. Brownback’s office monitors social media — as they should — but what happened next is inexplicable and is proof that monitoring isn’t enough. You have to have a strategy. He contacted the school program, and her principal ordered an apology from Emma Sullivan. UPDATE: Brownback has apologized for his staff’s over-reaction and the school is pursuing no further action.

Cue controversy. What a boneheaded move on the part of Brownback’s team! The Governor looks like he’s harassing high school students and the #heblowsalot hashtag has turned into a place for her supporters to sound off.

High school student Emma Sullivan has better people handling her Twitter account than Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.

Emma Sullivan has been hounded by the press, the story has blown up, and she has rejected the apology idea, saying she isn’t sorry and an apology would be insincere. She had 65 followers before the tweet, and as of now, is over 7,000. Brownback has less than half that amount.

This is a classic PR nightmare, and it’s entirely created by the actions of the Sam Brownback PR people. Knowing that negative comments are out there is important. When 65 of Emma’s friends got that tweet, that should have been the end of it. Instead, the story just keeps getting bigger and now he looks like a tattletale with the thinnest skin ever. As a public figure, especially a controversial one that has cut all arts funding in the state (the first governor to do so), he should expect criticism. Knowing the tweet was out there — one of many public criticisms he gets daily on the web — was one thing. Acting on it in a public manner was poor strategy.

Here’s what I find really funny/sad: Whoever is helping out Emma Sullivan knows PR better than the Sam Brownback team. Check out this sample progression of tweets on the Emma Sullivan account:

Nov 16: Just found out justin bieber raps in his christmas album… #mixedfeelings

Nov 17: Dear edward and jacob, this is the best night of my life. I want u. Love, ur future wife #breakingdawn

Nov 18: Uhhh u expect me to wait till NEXT NOVEMBER!???? WTF!!! #TOOEXCITED #BREAKINGDAWN

Nov 21: Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot

Nov 23: I knew this day would come, but I didnt know itd be today #makingheadlines

Nov 23: Thank you to everyone who is supporting me!

Nov 24: Please send all questions or requests to

Nov 26: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” -Gandhi

Nov 27: I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong

Wow. So she goes from Twilight and Bieber remarks to tweeting her email address for media requests, thanking her supporters, to quoting Gandhi (!!!) and turning herself into a free speech martyr? Wow. Now that’s what I call good PR management. Sam Brownback could learn a thing or two.

What do you think? How can Brownback fix this or at least do some damage control?

Image: AP, Politico

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