Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Governor Brownback, a Teenage Girl and #heblowsalot

It all would have gone away, quietly, without notice and without causing even a ripple in the Internet. Now it's become a media circus, making a teenage girl the poster child for freedom of speech online and portraying the Governor of Kansas as an evil ogre out to trample the Constitution.

It started when 18-year-old Emma Sullivan, as part of her school's Youth In Government program, visited the Kansas state Capitol with about 100 other students. While there, boredom prompted her to Tweet to her 65 Followers "Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot".

Ha ha, just a jab at The Man for the sake of making her friends laugh. No harm. No foul.

The problem began when someone on the staff of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback took it upon themselves to track down Sullivan, contact her school principal and make a big kerfuffle of the whole thing. The principal in turn called Sullivan into her office and demanded the student write an apology to Brownback, lecturing her for an hour about how embarrassing the entire incident was for the school, the community, America and apple pie. (Ok, I added the last two things.)

Since all of this came to light Sullivan's Twitter Following spiked to more than 15,500 in a few short days. The story has been picked up by every major news agency around the globe; repeated ad nauseam on every news program, been the fodder for late night talk show hosts and generally spread about as far and wide as it is possible for a story to spread.

Look, when it comes to social media, not every message you receive will be positive. Even Mother Theresa had her detractors. The important thing is NOT to make a list of names and try to silence them all. It is to recognize they are unhappy, find out why and try to convert them to your team. Kill them with kindness, so to speak.

Everything you do on social media is transparent, visible to the world. It is also true you are more likely to be judged by your actions toward your enemies than your friends.

So do yourself a favor and review your policy for handling social media negatives with your social media manager before you become a punchline for The Daily Show.

Realizing their snafu, school officials backed down Monday, stating that Sullivan would not be punished for her refusal to write the apology letter. That same day, Governor Brownback issued an apology for his staff's overreaction.

Nonetheless, social networkers and mainstream press alike continue to blast the governor's office for reporting Sullivan's lese-majesty. The situation is reminiscent of a public controversy the grocery chain Price Chopper experienced over a year ago when one of its employees tried to get a customer fired from his job after the customer criticized Price Chopper on Twitter.

The best thing Brownback's staffers could have done was note but otherwise ignore Sullivan's tweet. Sullivan, after all, was but a teenage girl with a small following, tweeting trite teenage-girl things like "Dear edward and jacob, this is the best night of my life. I want u. Love, ur future wife #breakingdawn." Even the political tweet that gave such offense was rather bland and immature. Sullivan's was hardly a comment most Kansas voters would have taken seriously had government officials left well enough alone.

Click here to read more about the "Sullivan/Brownback Incident".

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