TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When colleges go into “crisis P.R. mode,” it’s time to go into “records request mode”

When there’s an emergency on campus, who does the college’s president call? The chair of the board of trustees? The chief of police? The governor?

Often, one of the very first calls goes out to a public-relations company. If you can’t actually not have a meltdown, then the next best thing (in the minds of many college administrators) is not to look like you’re having a meltdown.

Indeed, sometimes the advice comes before the meltdown, as it did at the University of Virginia, where last June the head of the board of trustees consulted with a $750-an-hour P.R. adviser to figure out how to finesse the surprise firing of UVA’s popular president. (The answer: Not well. Public outcry forced the reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan and almost cost the trustees chair her job.)

Advice from a “crisis communications” expert doesn’t come cheap. At Penn State — the campus crisis by which all other campus crises will be measured for years to come — the tab for the services of at least four different P.R. firms summoned to respond to the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal totaled $7.8 million.(And even then, Penn State was second-guessed for not doing enough image control.)

This past week, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported, relying on documents obtained under the North Carolina Public Records Act, that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill spent more than $500,000 on “messaging” advice to repair the reputational damage from a still-unfolding academic scandal in the athletic department.

And the tab has just opened at Rutgers University, where a P.R. firm had racked up $150,000 in bills as of the end of May for managing the oil-slick engulfing that school’s athletic department — detecting a pattern here as to the source of universities’ problems? — after the college mishandled abuse allegations against its head basketball coach.

Contracts between a public university and a vendor like a P.R. firm are a matter of public record. These contracts can help journalists explain not just how much the college is paying, but at what hourly rate and for what services.

Even in the absence of a publicly apparent crisis, it’s a good reporting practice to make a routine request (perhaps once a year) for records of what colleges are paying for the services of public-relations advisers. And to ask why.

In an era where major universities are building regiment-sized in-house P.R. capacity, it’s legitimate to question why pricey outside help is necessary. (Expertise may be one reason, but secrecy — and specifically, the ability to evade open-records requests for in-house correspondence between employees of the P.R. agency — may be another motive.)

Getting the contracts (and records of payments — invoices, checks, billing statements) is a start. But at a public university, correspondence (including emails) with an external P.R. agency should also be discoverable by way of an open-records request.

That’s how to find out not just how much a college is investing in burnishing its image (remembering that some or all of the money may be from a private foundation and not directly from the taxpayers) but also just how much its top administrators are obsessing over damage control — as opposed to actually putting out the fire or getting to the bottom of its cause.