TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When colleges go into P.R. mode, remember that the P.R. office creates public records too

For those responsible for burnishing the public-relations image of the University of Montana, the last half-year has brought a nightmarish cycle of one unspeakably bad story after another.

First, the Grizzlies football program was plunged into turmoil by a string of sexual-assault allegations against prominent players, leading UM to fire its head football coach and athletic director.

Next, the university was accused of foot-dragging in bringing charges against a visiting Saudi national student who — when confronted with accusations that he raped one student and attempted to sexually assault another — fled the country and evaded prosecution.

Then, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that it is investigating how the university, the Missoula Police Department and the county prosecutor handle reports of sexual assaults. In an unusual public statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said that authorities “failed to adequately address sexual assaults,” leading the DOJ to look into whether the lack of aggressive follow-up might result in a hostile environment for women on campus.

The university’s response? According to public records obtained by the Missoulian newspaper and The Wall Street Journal, at least one university official tried to silence a talkative victim.

Jim Foley, the UM executive vice president who oversees public relations, inquired whether a victim who publicly criticized the university’s failure to adequately punish her attacker could be brought up on student conduct charges for leaking information about a confidential disciplinary proceeding, according to the Missoulian. The emails obtained by the Missoulian also show Foley attempting to manage the flow of negative disclosures by (among other responses) resisting the use of the phrase “gang rape” to refer to four football players’ attack on a female student, and keeping any mention about the university’s response to the widening scandal out of the alumni magazine.

Foley has been unavailable to comment on his emails to the local media, but he did write a forceful response to the Kaimin student newspaper that called for his ouster, accusing the paper of “defamation of character.”

Many journalists view the public-relations apparatus as (at best) a conduit to get messages to the decisionmakers they actually want to speak with. But don’t overlook the fact that P.R. employees often are not just mouthpieces but are participants, whose advice may be sought in “spinning” a bad situation. The fact that a college is thinking about “spin control” when student safety is at issue is revealing about institutional priorities and values.

(The unfurling Montana situation is reminiscent of Penn State’s response — as documented by the Associated Press using emails obtained through public records requests — in the weeks following disclosure of child molestation allegations against former coach Jerry Sandusky. Top officials from the new president down immediately shifted their focus from investigating whether crimes occurred to “taking control of the narrative,” minimizing unflattering chatter about the school on Twitter and the blogosphere, and formulating “talking points” to retain financial contributors.)

Along with getting the internal correspondence from the P.R. office, remember that in-house lawyers almost always will be consulted when sensitive decisions, especially those involving crime, are at issue. Although hidebound colleges may cry “attorney-client privilege” whenever an attorney’s emails are sought, honest schools know that not all correspondence involving the university attorney is a confidential client communication — especially where the attorney is acting as just another member of the administration’s leadership team and not as a legal adviser.

By obtaining the university attorney’s emails, the Missoulian was able to show that — eight months before the Saudi student’s case — UM’s top lawyer received advice over a college attorney listserv that police should be notified of all criminal acts that pose a risk to public safety, even if the victim does not wish to see the conduct criminally prosecuted.

Finally, an entertaining and at times revealing public records exercise is to request correspondence that names particular media outlets or even individual reporters and editors whose inquisitiveness has aggravated the school. Knowing that the college may be working to withhold information from, deny access to, or otherwise make life miserable for disfavored media outlets is another glimpse into the part of school that P.R. people are paid to keep unseen.