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Gini Dietrich

Politicians Trying to Control What Is Said Online

By: Gini Dietrich | November 29, 2011 | 
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Let’s talk politics today, shall we?

OK, not really politics, but the politicians who don’t know how to use the web appropriately.

In one corner we have Mike Winder, West Valley City (Utah) Mayor, who was using a false identity to write news stories that were published in at least three different publications.

In the other corner we have Sam Brownback, the Kansas governor, who demanded an apology from a high school student because of a disparaging tweet she sent about him.

Let’s see who will win the biggest moron award. 

Mike Winder

The Utah Mayor used pseudonym Richard Burwash to write news articles about the city he governs, saying he wanted to highlight “good news” after cutbacks in coverage of local government.

He admitted writing more than a dozen articles under the byline, that for more than two years appeared in the daily Deseret News, KSL-TV’s website and the Oquirrh Times, a community weekly.

He even quoted himself, as Mayor, and used anonymous city employee sources in his stories.

When asked about his motive behind doing this, he said he wanted:

To try to restore balance in the Deseret News‘ coverage of his city, claiming the paper focused too much on crime and not enough on “good news” in his community.

He also defended himself by saying other American such as Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton all used pen names.

No matter. PRSA condemned this practice by saying:

The basic tenets of ethical communications practices, as addressed in the PRSA Code of Ethics, require that those representing organizations or governments serve the public interest by advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information.

Sam Brownback

The Kansas governor’s office had a field day when high school student, Emma Sullivan, was visiting the capitol last week and tweeted:

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

Seeing the tweet, Brownback’s communication director called the principal at Sullivan’s school, who demanded she issue an apology.

The thing is…Sullivan had only 65 followers at the time. And, until her visit to the capitol, she tweeted only about Edward and Jacob and Justin Beiber. Typical teenage stuff.

Now she has more than 9,000 followers and is tweeting quotes from Ghandi, things about free speech, and thanks for all of the support she’s getting.

Turns out her tweet does fall within free speech and Gov. Brownback issued an apology to Sullivan for their “overreaction.”

The Lessons

This web thing is a hard one to figure out. You lose control of what people will say and do.

But the thing is, you never really had control. You just had the perception of control because you couldn’t hear and read what people were saying. People have always been people. Now we just have a bullhorn for our messages.

Clearly Winder never should have published news stories under a pen name. By quoting himself and anonymous city employees, he knew he was doing something wrong and unethical. Not to mention not transparent, which is one of the platforms he’ll run on as he eyes the Mayor seat for Salt Lake County.

The governor’s office should be monitoring what is being said about him online, and bravo for being on top of it. But to make such a big deal over one tweet from a teenager who has 65 followers? That’s a ton of time wasted…and a ton of the governor’s time that could have been spent, oh I don’t know, running the state.

You can create owned media, but put your own stinking name on it. You should be monitoring the web for what is said about you, your company, and your products or services. But please, please, please have a strategy. Without it you’ll overreact to a teenager with 65 followers.

Oh and the biggest moron award? I say Mayor Winder receives it because he is still unapologetic.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

99 comments
MatchesMalone
MatchesMalone

It follows that Emma Sullivan should get first runner up, because from the content of her tweet, she can't decide whether the Governor sucks or blows....

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

Here, here..."you never really had control." The difference now...you (sorry, not YOU, but the general you) think you do because you created a FB page or a Twitter account and therefore control that space. What has really happened is you've just provided people with an additional, public way to share their opinions about you and it's beyond your control. What is within your control is how it's managed, monitored and addressed. Learning to tell the difference between the mountains and the molehills is a skill; knowing when and how to climb the real mountain is an art.

New England Multimedia
New England Multimedia

Excellent post, Gini. I'm really glad to see you've given credit to Brownback's office for apologizing after the fact, too. We've been discussing this over on @Neicolec 's blog, where I explain why I'm not a fan of Ms. Sullivan's. I mentor young people who have valid concerns about the way free speech is afforded to some but not all in the public school setting. My advice to them is to use social media and other opportunities to speak their minds, but always with respect for those who disagree with them; to be pillars of good character and solid integrity, so their opponents can't dismiss them as being hypocrites (ad hominem arguments); and to build bridges to dialogue by using language that keeps their opponents from going on the defensive. Think of the Topeka, Kansas church that pickets funerals. They're exercising their free speech rights as well, but we don't applaud them for doing so, or deride those who are trying to stop them. What Ms. Sullivan said certainly doesn't go to that extreme, but the principle is the same. I believe when we talk about free speech, we also need to talk about the values of civility and respect for others. What do you think?

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

Okay, not a PR pro like many here, but if I had a Ten Commandments of PR, one of them would be, you don't swat mosquitos with a bazooka. On the Kansas issue...From 65 followers to national press, all courtesy of elevating something that should have just been ignored. To me, it's not even a free speech issue, it's just, as you point out, dumb PR.

LeeTawil
LeeTawil

I agree with you about Governor Brownback. There are always going to be people who don't agree with your political views. To make a big thing out of a comment made by a high schooler is definitely a case of not understanding how social media is used.

Having said that, I think that the decision by the governor to not pursue further action is the correct decision. He realized he was wrong and is now owning up to it.

glenn_ferrell
glenn_ferrell

Way to go Emma Sullivan :) Gini - (speaking of politicians desire to control the web) congratulations -- you got through this entire article without mentioning SOPA (what a rat's nest of issues that is.)

NancyD68
NancyD68

They are both morons.Did you see something similar happened when that Dallas Cowboys cheerleader got knocked over by a player as he was running out of bounds. She did two cute, HARMLESS tweets and the Cowboys yanked her off twitter. @skypulsemedia would agree that the New York Giants are not only a better football team but handle social media better. The NY Giants are very active on Twitter and have a very busy Facebook page as well.

Back to the dumb politicians. One is a bully and one is a moron. They are almost interchangeable in their arrogance and levels of stupidity. The one from Utah wins only because he was publishing fake news stories. Did he really think he would get away with that?

And the other one, bullying a high school kid - WTF? That's all I got on that one.

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

I agree, the Mayor is the bigger moron. But I also think Emma Sullivan's principal should be in the running (at least get a honorable mention) for calling her into the principals office and demanding she write a apology letter, even setting a deadline to do so. He way overstepped his boundaries, her Twitter account and comments about a politician have nothing to do with him or his school. He had no right to attempt to discipline her.

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Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

Clearly, Emma was correct in her statement. The Governor and his staff have proved that. And clearly, the truth hurts. That. is all.

Oh, wait, one other thing. "Let's see who will win the biggest moron award" made me laugh out loud.

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PattiRoseKnight
PattiRoseKnight

I ususally stay out of political conversations but these two are true morons! And they say Chicago politiciations are crooks! Unreal!

jenzings
jenzings

IMHO, the "moron" award goes to the adult male who knew full well that writing articles under a false name was wrong. Brownback can only be faulted for hiring overzealous staffers.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

Having just come off of running a campaign, I have to say that this is a tricky thing at best. Controlling the message is very important in a political campaign because there is a definite end-date - no chance to redeem yourself after November. Also, since there are often two contenders and not a truly free market, there is a chance to go negative - Coke vs Pepsi - so you have your opponent's stuff to respond to. Otherwise innocent "consumer" complaints are very likely plants by the other side.

Now, having said that, I don't think either of these guys are in the middle of a campaign. But there is one more thing that makes Winder's schtick far more damning IMHO - there may be laws against it if there is a campaign running and/or he has a valid campaign committee in place (which I'll bet he does). Not knowing the laws of Utah I can't say for sure, but in Minnesota his actions could be violations of the truth in campaign laws in many ways and could result in very large fines and a huge investigation that would result in months of bad press.

So political campaigns are different, but these guys were just being jerks generally. Brownback gets a special award for making a big issue out of something he had no business elevating in the first place. Mayor Winder did something that probably happens a lot - but staff takes care of it. So I think that while they both have levels of stupidity I think from a political standpoint Brownback's sin was even worse - unless Winder violated campaign laws, in which case he's a total idiot.

bdorman264
bdorman264

Uh oh, you mean I was supposed to be using my real name for my blog. At first, I didn't think much about it because I thought I could stay under the radar; you know, liked the time I faked my death to collect the insurance money but was discovered when I ran for mayor in Myprivate, Idaho; I just never expected to reach these lofty heights. I'm afraid if I tell everyone now I'm really Arnold Schwarzenegger http://www.popstarsplus.com/images/ArnoldSchwarzeneggerPicture.jpg they might not react to kindly in light of all the allegations floating about..........I'm sure @skypulsemedia can appreciate where I'm coming from because I think he uses an alias as well........

The real problem is there is no control so you hope there is a least some civility and at least a grain of truth to what you see and read. Unfortunately, it will always be hit or miss in this arena unless we are hangin' at reputable joints like this, huh?

BethMosher
BethMosher

I say the moron award goes to neither the Gov or the Mayor but rather to that communications director who should have known better than to make such a huge deal over nothing. Now it's national news and you have the Governor apologizing to the teen for crying out loud. Not quite the way they thought this would turn out, but if the communications director was worth his salt, he would have foreseen this mess play out, or at least recognized that making a fuss over someone with 65 followers isn't worth it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@New England Multimedia I wanted to keep the light on the politicians in this post because I think there is a lot business leaders can learn from the terrible way this was handled.

But I do agree there should be civility and respect when disagreeing. I'm a big believer in attacking ideas and not people. If she were my child, I'd have a coronary about what she said on Twitter. Sure, you can be bored or not like what he has to say. And tweet about it. But do so in a respectful way. Wow...this is an entire new blog post topic!

New England Multimedia
New England Multimedia

By the way, I followed the story trail on Emma Sullivan further than just the initial story, because I work with teens who have experienced far more "shutting down" than she did, so I'm sure my perspective is born out of that experience and the additional stories I read. I definitely applaud and defend the right to free speech for Ms. Sullivan and everyone else, and believe we really have to be vigilant right now.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@wabbitoid I think this ruined any chance for Winder to run. From what I can tell he had his sights set on Salt Lake County, which is the largest county in Utah. I doubt the Utah community will elect him after all of this.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@bdorman264 Ha! Even I make mistakes. I always try to put myself in the shoes of the "offenders" when I'm blogging about them. It's called critical thinking.

TheJackB
TheJackB

@bdorman264 I wonder about the people who are use pen names like Dear Abby just so they can become famous columnists.

The Communications Manager for Brownback just proved that they have really questionable judgment. Got to wonder about them.

@skypulsemedia

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jenzings
jenzings

Maybe the comms director checked the teen's Klout score, and decided it would be fine to reprimand her because she wasn't an "influencer."

;-) @BethMosher

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@BethMosher Um, the communications director is female. And, you're right, shame on her.

Scott217
Scott217

@BethMosher I agree, and wonder if Brownback even knew she contacted the group. I also wonder who made the demand she apologize- her, the student group or the school administrators. I would take a guess that the student group got a little worried their funding might get cut if they ticked-off the governor. What a way to turn a nothing tweet into a huge dust-up; and on a holiday weekend, no less. (ps. His spokesperson is a her, Sherriene Jones-Sontag (http://jimromenesko.com/2011/11/28/meet-the-press-secretary-who-reported-a-teen-for-her-brownback-tweet/)

MatchesMalone
MatchesMalone

It was my intent to generate a laugh or a chuckle or even a guffaw. I do agree that the imagery is consistent. @glenn_ferrell

KenMueller
KenMueller

@ginidietrich@New England Multimedia I actually used your idea of attacking the idea, and not people in a recent post about how we as consumers should act online. I was surprised how many people found fault with what I had to say, mostly in comments left on LinkedIn. But seriously, civility is a lost art. Hope you don't mind me linking to my post here... http://inklingmedia.net/2011/11/04/quit-yer-whinin-a-customers-responsibility-in-the-social-media-world/

NancyD68
NancyD68

@ginidietrich They could have taken that "ball" (pardon the pun) and ran with it and made it into something cute and memorable. They, because they are the Dallas Cowboys and are run by an egomaniac, can't possibly have any fun. Such a shame.

jenzings
jenzings

It's easier to dislike Brownback because he's a higher profile public figure. The "David v. Goliath" nature of this is what has caused it to become an issue--Gov's office picking on a teen. (Honestly, I even think the teen was a bit snotty--her comment wasn't particularly lucid or critical of policy, etc. it was just of the "he sucks, ha ha ha" type thing. So from where I sit, it was a pretty worthless Tweet, and not worth the hullabaloo surrounding it.) @ginidietrich

So on the one hand, we have an issue where a teen posts something that a staffer feels is disrespectful, and it spins out of control due to a lack of understanding of the potential impact. I've worked in politics, and I can tell you that staffers can be an almost absurdly loyal bunch. What would be far more interesting to me would be to see how the Governor's staff would have reacted to an actual critique of the governor's policies. I do think there's a thread of Midwestern manners running through this.

On the other hand, we have a grown man making stuff up to bolster his image. I'm no fan of Brownback's, but this is pretty cut-and-dried for me.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Scott217@BethMosher Even if Brownback didn't know she contacted the school, it's still his position to take responsibility. She's acting on behalf of him. I was happy to see him apologize, but like the high school student said, it would have been nice if he'd done it in person.

KenMueller
KenMueller

@New England Multimedia @ginidietrich yikes. I shared it in about 12 or so groups on Linked In and I dont remember where the comments were. But they were all along the lines of "If a company is gonna be on Social media they should expect people to do this because it's the fastest way." and yeah, i think we need to be ready for it, but it doesn't mean that we, as consumers, should go that direction right away. i'll see if i can find the comments.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@KenMueller People are funny. It's like my Google+ blog post. I was attacking the idea of charging to teach people how to use the social network when it was less than a month old. But because there were only two companies charging, they both took it as my attacking them. Some battles you just don't win.

NancyD68
NancyD68

@ginidietrich As a Giant fan, I feel the need to mock the Cowboys whenever the opportunity strikes. Boo NFL! Bad move!

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@jenzings@ginidietrich Couldn't agree more. Perhaps summed up as: Brownback/staff did something stupid, Winder did something stupid and dishonest. =)

jenzings
jenzings

I'm only half-kidding there. Her score was a 17 a few days ago. Today it is 65. Now tell me: is she really an influencer? Yes, she's impacted the news for a few days. But is it sustainable? @ginidietrich

BethMosher
BethMosher

@Scott217 @ginidietrich Thanks for the correction on the spokesperson - I don't know why I thought she was a he. But, I agree with all above comments that the mayor acted extremely unethically. To which I say - let's not be limiting - moron awards all around!

Scott217
Scott217

@ginidietrich@Scott217@BethMosher I agree that he's the one that hits the airwaves. Ideally, right after local media picked up the story. I just wonder how Jones-Sontag started playing telephone. Was it an off-handed remark, a really PO'd phone call, etc.? And, Emma's a teenager for Pete's sake. If we spent that much time getting honked-off at what they said, our brains would explode.

Trackbacks

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  2. […] A post this morning on SpinSucks reminded me just how far we have to go when it comes to teaching people about bridging offline and online worlds. Between a Governor’s office overreacting to a teenager’s tweet and a Mayor publishing “good news stories” under a pseudonym, there is clearly a lot to be learned. Gini Dietrich sums it up nicely in the post: […]

  3. […] A post this morning on SpinSucks reminded me just how far we have to go when it comes to teaching people about bridging offline and online worlds. Between a Governor’s office overreacting to a teenager’s tweet and a Mayor publishing “good news stories” under a pseudonym, there is clearly a lot to be learned. Gini Dietrich sums it up nicely in the post: […]

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