TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - It used to be that if the governor's office wasn't happy with what a reporter had written, someone would pick up the phone or email to protest. That's too old fashioned for Gov. Rick Scott's team.
Scott's communications director, Brian Burgess, is taking to Twitter to contradict and argue with reporters and criticize news outlets. Shots have often been fired back in what some are describing as an online fight between capitol reporters and the governor's main messenger - sometimes to the amusement of those following the exchanges.
"What used to be a flurry of phone calls back and forth and maybe barging into people's offices has become a Twitter war and, often times, it's silly," said Brian Crowley, a former Palm Beach Post political reporter who now runs the Crowley Political Report blog. "It's not a two-way conversation. It's a mob conversation."
When St. Petersburg Times reporter Michael Bender tweeted that Scott planned to announce a proposed $1 billion property tax cut and said it was 30 percent less than a $1.4 billion cut he promised during his campaign, Burgess tweeted, "Myth." Bender took the bait and an exchange ensued.
"Going by your press release," tweeted Bender.
"The phrase 'over $1 billion' doesn't give you poetic license to infer your own number," Burgess retorted.
"It's your press release. 30% seems a bit much to round, no?" Bender tweeted.
When Scott announced his budget the next week, Burgess singled out Bender in another tweet: "$1.4 billion over two years."
Those types of arguments aren't unusual between a reporter and governor's communications director. What's new is that the public is following along. Bender, whose Twitter handle is (at)michaelcbender, has more than 1,300 followers. Burgess, whose Twitter handle is (at)brianjburgess, has more than 600 followers. So if they take shots at each other, there are plenty of people watching.
"It's a little bit like having a school-yard fight in front of the entire school. All the kids are entertained, but what do they think of you after it's over?" Crowley said. "When you're twittering back and forth with each other, as soon as someone takes a shot, all of your followers are watching and it creates a pressure of 'Well, I've got to defend myself.'"
Burgess said Scott is seeking new ways to communicate. The governor's own Twitter account ((at)FLGovScott) sticks to his message without snarkiness, employing a more straightforward tone than Burgess'.
Associated Press reporters in state capitals around the country were asked if governors' communications teams were using Twitter in a similar way to fight back against the mainstream press. Scott's team appears to be the only one that regularly challenges reporters directly on the social media website.
"This governor has challenged us to push the envelope from a communications standpoint, recognizing that the traditional press obviously has a role to play, but not the only role," Burgess said in an interview. "We've been fairly experimental in these early few months and we'll make modifications to our tone as we learn what works and what doesn't."
Some other examples of Burgess' Twitter exchanges over news coverage:
- Orlando Sentinel reporter Aaron Deslatte tweeted a link to a story questioning job projections for a dredging project favored by Scott, who had previously killed a high-speed rail project. Burgess responded with a tweet saying, "jobs projected for port expansion no different than HSR, except the cost to taxpayers is $2,625,000,000 lower. (hash)winning (hash)duh". The (hash)winning and (hash)duh were references to Twitter hashtags popularized by actor Charlie Sheen.
- Some reporters used Twitter to take issue with the governor's office trying to pick pool reporters to cover a dinner Scott had with a handful of lawmakers. In pool arrangements, a small number of journalists provide coverage for a larger group of outlets because of limited space or resources. Burgess responded by tweeting "Where else in the US does the press corps insist on man-to-man coverage at the Governor's dinner table?" and "press corps will be even more apoplectic than tonight if they are replaced by web cams." As reporters waited outside the governor's mansion on a cold sidewalk, Burgess tweeted the dinner menu.
- When the St. Petersburg Times wrote an editorial criticizing Scott for fighting President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, Burgess tweeted a link and the message "Uber-lib St. Pete Times editors criticize FL leaders for avoiding disaster that is Massachusetts health care system."
Alia Faraj, who worked as former Gov. Jeb Bush's communications director, had many phone conversations with reporters to clarify the record when she felt stories were wrong. She has noticed the Twitter exchanges, and said there's nothing wrong with Burgess defending his boss, even though she tends to take a more old-fashioned approach to communicating.
"It's sort of a two-way street. Reporters are using social media to get the word out even before a story is written," she said. "I can see the benefits of responding in a public setting to set the record straight if the story is in a public setting."
Some reporters feel the same way, challenging Scott's office on access issues and other points.
During a lengthy exchange involving Burgess, Bender and Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo over press pool coverage, Caputo ((at)MarcACaputo) tweeted, "I imagine our conv is boring whomever is paying attention."
Apryl Marie Fogel ((at)aprylmarie) immediately responded to him, "Actually, no I'm kinda enjoying it. Find it entertaining."
"Usually we don't see these exchanges. We don't see the struggles of reporters to get access to information," Fogel, who is the Florida director for the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, said in a phone interview. "So it is entertaining and it is informative."
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)