Gov. Brownback Gets an F in Social Media

A state governor's staff has learned one of the central lessons of social media: Consider all possible outcomes before responding to negative comments. And then there's this secondary lesson: Pick on someone your own size.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has apologized after his office came under fire for its response to a disparaging tweet posted by a high school senior who was attending a school event at the state Capitol. “My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize,” he said in an e-mailed statement to the Associated Press.

Last week, when 18-year-old Emma Sullivan, who was participating in a Youth in Government program, tweeted, “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,” she thought she was just joking with her 61 Twitter friends. However, when Brownback’s staff noticed the tweet while monitoring social media channels, his communications director called Sullivan's school and complained that the tweet was disrespectful. This led to Sullivan being summoned to her principal’s office and being told to apologize for the remark in writing. She refused.

AP reported that Sullivan's sister then fed the story to the media, which covered the story widely using the angle that Brownback's staff was trying to limit freedom of expression.

We've heard often that brands cannot attempt to control the flow of conversation on social media—they can only participate in it and perhaps influence it. The governor's staff did make an attempt at control, and this attempt backfired in the worst possible way. Worse than that, it did not stop to consider how a high school student might react to being told what she may be permitted to put in a Twitter post. This is not a good era for the thin-skinned.