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Pearce PR flap offers lessons for politicos

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Rep. Steve Pearce’s communications operation exploded in a PolitixFireball last week when he was effectively forced to fire a press secretary just four days after he hired her.

As Pearce and Rebekah Stevens – the 24-year-old, flame-throwing and now unemployed blogger who resigned at Pearce’s request on Friday – lick their collective wounds, it’s worth considering some valuable lessons the episode offers for aspiring young politicos and the people who seek to hire them.

First, a little background.

Pearce on Tuesday announced his hiring of Stevens, who was affiliated with the controversial blog and social media accounts known as “PolitixFireball.”

PolitixFireball was a formidable presence in New Mexico’s social media community, boasting more than 40,000 followers on Twitter. It was also a highly inflammatory one. Among the, well, fireballs it launched were derogatory and offensive statements about Jews, Muslims, President Obama and journalists.

“I know the Jews went up in smoke … I think you’re wrong re: the economy,” said one PolitixFireball tweet in response a fellow Twitter user. Another declared that Islam is a “blood lust” religion.

The frequent attacks on journalists, while vociferous and frequent, were somewhat less offensive, but still enough to create hard feelings. For the record, PolitixFireball flamed me at least once – about a column I wrote on cuts to the federal food stamps program. I didn’t engage, and the site in turn left me alone.

In an interview with me on Wednesday, Pearce defended hiring Stevens, reasoning that she was young, talented and well-aware that she could not continue posting controversial statements to social media accounts while in his employ. Within 48 hours – after an explosion of Democratic criticism online, as well as some incredulous calls from fellow Republicans – Pearce changed his mind.

“When I hired Miss Stevens, I hoped she could transition from activist to become an asset to the people of New Mexico,” Pearce said in a statement announcing her resignation. “It is now clear that major obstacles will prevent this. I asked for and accepted her resignation this morning. I hold myself and my staff to the highest level of accountability, and any distractions that hinder my service to New Mexicans must always be addressed.”

Pearce’s chief-of-staff, Todd Willens, in an interview with me on Friday, owned up to blowing this particular hire. He said he and Pearce were not fully aware of the extent and aggressive nature of Stevens’ social media presence. He also said it didn’t help that at least one New Mexico Republican had formally threatened to sue Stevens for defamation, and other Republicans were coming out of the woodwork to denounce the hire.

“We need our friends,” Willens told me.

Indeed, in politics you need all the friends you can get. Willens is an experienced, rational and smart Capitol Hill operative but he conceded that his awareness of social media could use some work.

“I certainly have learned from this,” he said.

It’s a valuable lesson for all politicians of a certain age who might not be keeping up with what the kids are doing these days. Most of what the the “kids” are doing – and saying – is online. All you have to do is look.

If Pearce and Willens had spent a little more time peeking into Stevens’ online past they might have had second thoughts about hiring her to work with New Mexico reporters. Willens said as much.

The lesson for would-be political operatives like Stevens is that no matter how impassioned you might be about a subject, posting mean-spirited – and especially racist or xenophobic – comments online, even under a cloak of anonymity, is a terrible idea. The chance that it will come back to haunt you – and it almost certainly will – is not worth the momentary feeling of smug satisfaction that the outbursts might provide.

Almost of all of us who work in media and politics have sent an angry email we regret, or tweeted something hostile without full regard for the implications. Sometimes it gets you fired. Other times it just diminishes you in the eyes of your target and others who are watching in the online sphere.

In either case, you ultimately lose.

Everyone admires passion in politics, but circumspection and discretion matter, too.

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com

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