The tweet that turned a governor into a bully

By Ken Feltman

Jack Sharkey (the playwright, not the prizefighter) told the tale of a king with guards so ferocious and mean that no one could ever get past them to see the king. Then one day, a man just stumbled through the web of security and happened upon the bored and lonely king twiddling his thumbs. The king was overjoyed to see another human being and asked all sorts of questions about what was going on in the outside world. He was sad and perplexed to learn that his subjects considered him aloof and unfriendly. Why, he asked, did they think such a thing?

Enter Emma Sullivan, a high school senior from Kansas. While listening to a speech by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, she sent a Tweet to her 61 Twitter followers – mostly fellow students and family – claiming “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person” (sic). We can criticize her choice of words. She used the vernacular of her generation. Brownback’s office sent a return message using a different technique. Brownback’s staff monitors Tweets containing the governor’s name. When they read Sullivan’s tweet, they reported Sullivan to school authorities. The authorities came down hard on Sullivan and demanded that she write an apology to the governor.

As Sullivan contemplated the demand, her Twitter followers increased by the minute. Ultimately, she decided that the whole episode had been blown up all out of proportion. She wanted to move ahead and put the incident behind. She resented but did not dwell on what she considered intimidation by Brownback and school officials. But she concluded that the incident was a free speech issue and she would not apologize. Soon, she was getting more media attention in a week than the governor could manage in months. She was all over radio, television and the Internet. Positive publicity for Sullivan was negative publicity for Brownback.

As Brownback and his staff waited for Sullivan’s capitulation, the governor’s Twitter account filled with negative messages from around Kansas, the country, indeed the world. Facebook was ablaze with indignation at the governor’s thin-skinned reaction to a Tweet from an 18-year-old who is looking forward to an enjoyable senior year and college next fall. When it was clear that Sullivan had a lot more people on her side, Brownback issued an tepid apology, blaming staff overreaction and agreeing that “freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

The final score? That will come when and if Brownback seeks reelection. At this point, his Twitter account has 3,441 followers. Sullivan is approaching 16,000.

The lessons?

 1. Politicians should never let themselves be perceived as attacking high school (or lower level) students. That looks like bullying.

2. When something gets into the social media, it takes on a life of its own. This makes it especially dangerous for public officials who try to deal with social media through staff and other filters.

3. Politicians should lighten up. Otherwise, a dumb statement by a teenager can make a governor look dumber.

(Also published in Politico)

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About Ken Feltman

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Feltman founded the U.S. and European Conflict Indexes in 1988. The indexes have predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election beginning in 1988, plus the outcome of several European elections. In May of 2010, the Conflict Index was used by university students in Egypt. The Index predicted the fall of the Mubarak government within the next year.
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