PR Lesson from a Twitter Flap

Emma Sullivan

@emmakate988

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

When Shawnee Mission High School student Emma Sullivan jokingly tweeted her friend on November 21st, expressing her opinion of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s education policy, she had no reason to suspect that her 87-character message would ignite a firestorm of national debate; generate media exposure from nearly every major news source; increase her Twitter followers to nearly 16,000 from 61; or make her the poster child de jour for the First Amendment.

It wasn’t Emma’s tweet that caused the high-profile controversy. The flap was created by a staffer in Governor Brownback’s office who was compelled to contact the leader of Emma’s “Youth in Government” program, who notified Emma’s high school principal, who demanded an apology from Emma, who responded by notifying the media that her God-given American right to tweet was threatened. Stop the presses: we’ve got ourselves a sexy story that’s ready for prime time.

At this point, Governor Brownback and the Shawnee Mission School District had a big decision to make: either hold your ground, or back off a controversy that the media was likely to milk for days, and would position the governor and educators as free speech bullies and social media terrorists.

Contrary to decision-making you might expect from politicians and bureaucrats, both parties immediately backed down. The governor issued an apology, and the school district publicly stated its support of free speech and said Emma was not required to apologize. Smart move.

The PR lesson from this tweet heard round the world is that an apology is often the most effective way to limit damage to one’s reputation or brand. It takes guts to admit an error, but if it’s done correctly, you can build goodwill that offsets the mistake.  For some guidelines on how to apologize correctly, check out Ken Makovsky’s blog post on John Kador’s book, “Effective Apology.”

Emma Sullivan might want to put Kador’s book on her Christmas wish list. She has yet to learn basic diplomacy skills from her Youth in Government program. To date, Emma has refused to apologize for her salty tweet.

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