In November 2011, the University of California, Davis’ police handling of a student protest attracted an onslaught of bad publicity. This affected not just the school, but the officers involved, and Chancellor Linda Katehi. The incident involved pepper-spraying students during a peaceful protest related to tuition hikes at the school. Other related incidents at the time involved photographs of police beating some of the students, alongside video footage of two students dragged by their hair.
For years afterward, the incident cast a dark shadow on the university. Lawmakers and students alike called for the school to handle it by the Chancellor’s resignation. Rather than step down, however, Katehi spent tens of thousands of public funding dollars using PR experts to clean up the mess.
The PR Clean-Up
As a result, even though tuition spikes continue at UC Davis, that’s not the only thing causing student protests these days. The students also protest the university’s use of public funds to do their damage control. Documents recently released show the school paid PR experts at least $175,000 to clean both the school’s and the Chancellor’s image.
This mostly involved online reputation management and revamping the school’s communications platform. In its defense, the spokeswoman for UC Davis, Dana Topousis stated:
“We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed. We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.”
However, when the school contracted Nevins & Associates at $15,000 per month, the main objectives of the campaign read something more like:
…eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.
The Response of the PR Community
Even the public relations community remains appalled by the university’s actions. While no PR expert would claim the field serves no benefit to public organizations, such as schools, $175,000 is a big chunk to cut out of taxpayers’ money for PR cosmetics. The ridiculousness of the actions shows in the fact that $175,000 later, they are once again in the news for the same incident and its aftermath. What a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Doug Elmets, a PR consultant from Sacramento, pointed out it’s surprising the school thought these actions would remain undiscovered. He stated that it shows more evidence of how the leadership at UC Davis has no idea how to manage their public affairs – even after all the money spent to do exactly that.
Lessons for PR Specialists and Clients
When managing reputations, PR specialists must help companies look good, and ensure they monitor decisions and take actions which minimize reason for scrutiny by the public.
While PR specialists do not usually have a say in corporate decisions, they should advise clients on how the public will respond to certain decisions, should they ever discover the truth. And for publicly funded organizations, one of the chief decisions which cause scrutiny is hiring a PR firm in the first place; though with honesty and care, experts can manage this decision to fuel the best outcome.
Transparent operations remain the best and most ethical way to do business. Not only does it build trust in the community and public spheres, it also prevents companies, organizations, and the leaders behind them, from taking part in activities and decisions that “fly” under the cloak of public ignorance. In most instances, the public finds out, and when they do, a brand can count on all hell breaking loose.