Wrestling Pigs: How not to Handle your Online Presence

There’s an old saying that goes, “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.” The general truth of this philosophy is proven on the internet every day, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Take, for instance, the recent flap over a teenager tweeting disparaging comments about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. Eighteen-year-old Emma Sullivan was on a school trip to the Kansas Capitol, and her group was addressed by the governor. While he was speaking, she tweeted, “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Not only did Sullivan not actually say anything at all to the governor, her tweet was childish and petulant. It is exactly the sort of silly comment one expects a teenager to make about an adult authority figure she doesn’t like. He blows a lot? Really?

Had the Brownback administration done nothing, it would have received the treatment it deserved: obscurity. Sullivan and her friends would have giggled about it, and that would have been the end of things.

But things were just getting started, because Brownback spokeswoman Sherienne Jones-Sontag called Sullivan’s school and complained. Sullivan was scolded for an hour. Then she was told she would write a letter of apology, and the principal would give her talking points.

Then Sullivan’s sister called the media.

Before Governor Brownback could say, “What’s a hashtag?” #heblowsalot was trending on Twitter. Sullivan’s 65 followers, exploded to 10,000 in a matter of days. Brownback was ridiculed and pilloried nationwide. On Monday, he was the one who had to issue the apology. Sullivan refused to write hers, and the school, probably fearing a First Amendment lawsuit, backed down.

And all this because Brownback’s communication team decided to wrestle with a pig (metaphorically speaking).

The irony of this outcome is both terrible and lost on Jones-Sontag and the Brownback team. They wanted to get the student in trouble, but it was ultimately they who landed in hot water.  In her statement on the subject, Jones-Sontag indicated that Sullivan needed to understand the “power of social media.” She was wrong. It was Jones-Sontag herself who needed the lesson. Sullivan became a star. Brownback (not really his employees) looked foolish and petulant.

In other words, Governor Brownback got dirty, and Sullivan enjoyed it.

And all this came about, because Brownback’s communications team took an insult personally. They got wound up over the silly comments of a teenager.

There’s a lesson here. Fighting on the internet makes you look stupid. If a reader gives you a bad review, thank him or her for the review and say you’re sorry he or she didn’t enjoy the book.

And leave it at that.

Don’t debate him or her. Don’t respond again if the reviewer leaves a follow-up comment further disparaging you or your book. Let the person who wrote unkind things look like the troll instead of you.

Had the Brownback team done nothing, they’d have been the winners. Anyone who came across the tweet would have recognized it as the work of a snarky teen. Instead, they tried to counter what she said and made her a First Amendment Hero.

Resist the urge to do battle with trolls who want to trash your work. Let them identify themselves as trolls with their own words. Resist the urge to wrestle the pig. The only one who wins in that scenario is the pig.

You’ve worked too hard to get your work published. Don’t let someone else wreck it.


Author’s note: Just in case it’s necessary to explain this, I do not think Emma Sullivan is a pig or a troll. So far as I can tell from what I’ve read, she’s a civic-minded high school senior. But whatever you think of her politics or Governor Brownback’s, the situation they both endured is instructive of how NOT to handle a public relations problem, and, thus, the metaphor is appropriate for the purposes of discussing the lesson.

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