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

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Gini Dietrich November 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm

This is worse than the Dallas Cowboys making the cheerleader shut down her Twitter account after she had some fun with being tackled by a football player. She didn’t say anything derogatory, but they said her tweets weren’t approved by the NFL.

To quote Emma Sullivan, “WTF?!?”


Eric Melin November 28, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Gini- Wow. “not approved” = deleted? I will never understand how people that don’t understand social media are in a position to make poor PR decisions like these!


KC Rob Krieger November 29, 2011 at 4:37 am

I think I need to hire Emma for my marketing/PR department.


zach November 29, 2011 at 5:45 am

eric– nice piece! the most interesting part of this to me is how the principal– dr. karl krawitz– has been close to this kind of controversy before and apparently learned nothing. when i was senior at olathe south high school in 1993, the olathe school district tried to remove a book with lesbian themes (that had never been checked out in the many years it was on the shelf) from the high school library. while krawitz was not principal at the time of the suit, he was principal the year before, moving to olathe east when it opened in 1993. a group of students sued, and with the help of the ACLU, were able to keep “annie on my mind” on school library shelves. it is always interesting to me that civics and government are a huge part of senior high education, but whenever students attempt to practice what they learn, they get a whole new kind of education.


Joe Cheray November 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm

As someone who is addicted to Twitter as I am and who has been following the deluge of tweets from all over the globe in regards to #heblowsalot gate feel that Brownback not only owes Emma an apology better than the watered down public version he gives on his FB page, but he also owes the entire state of Kansas an apology for once again making us a laughing stock to the entire globe ONCE again. Isn’t it enough he was the first governor in history to cut funding to the arts? Isn’t it enough that he thinks that the only way to end poverty in Kansas is for the poor people in the state to get married? Isn’t it enough he screwed the poor shortly after he got into office but screwed them again this year in the way off cutting the TANF program down to 48 months instead of the 60 mo that other states get? Isn’t it enough that he cut funding to education once and is going to make even more drastic perhaps crippling cuts to education again?

He has made the governorship look like a laughing stock.


Olivia Sullivan November 30, 2011 at 6:07 am

Thank you so very much for this article, I have been my sister’s PR rep for this whole situation- handling e-mails and the media, as well as giving general advice for interviews and twitter updates. The KC star wrote an article about it and I’m just commenting to thank you for your praise. Her strength has been what has gotten our family through this situation and positive articles are always a breath of fresh air.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: