College PR offices fight against student media to manipulate narrative

Who tells the story of a college campus? A 2010 survey of 212 schools found annual median spending of a midsized college or university on marketing was $800,000, more than double what they spent ten years prior. At the same time, funding for independent student media is drying up.

On some campuses, student media and PR professionals have built constructive, communicative relationships, recognizing their different roles and establishing a working dynamic. But elsewhere, this shifting power dynamic has allowed college PR offices to deceptively spin stories, masquerade as news, deny student reporters access to sources, and infringe on student media’s editorial independence.

Spinning the story

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples in recent years of a PR office manipulating a narrative comes from the University of New Hampshire, which in 2016 received an unrestricted gift of $4 million after the death of a quiet librarian, Robert Morin, who had saved up the money during a lifetime of frugal spending.

As reported in an investigation by Deadspin, UNH allocated $1 million of his gift to a new scoreboard for its football stadium (compared to only $100,000 to the library). The PR office then researched his life, and upon discovering that he started watching football games while in an assisted living center, played up that fact to misleadingly imply that the allocation was made to reflect his interests, when in fact it had been decided months beforehand. The national media, at least initially, lapped it up and ran with the story as presented to them by the PR office.

Chris Evans, the president of the College Media Association and adviser to student media at the University of Vermont, said influencing media coverage is part of a PR official’s job. “If you’re doing your work well, you can create a press release and give it to a newspaper and a lazy reporter will take off your name from the byline space and put his or her name in the byline space and publish it that way,” he said. “And then you’ve had the ultimate success as a PR professional: you have had your version of events published as the objective version of events.”

Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of TVP Communications, a Denver-based firm which consults for university PR offices, defended the work of PR officials by pointing to their professionalism and codes of ethics. “I don’t work with colleagues who believe in spin or who believe in lying,” she said. “We hold ourselves to high standards.”

Christian Basi, the director of the University of Missouri’s PR office, agreed. He sees his role with journalists as just ensuring that the university’s perspective is represented, and has no qualms about the ethics of his work because he supports the university’s mission.

Still, Evans said journalists have a responsibility to treat information provided by PR officials with skepticism. “A good journalist is not someone who is merely echoing or passing along what the administration wants them to say,” he said.

Masquerading as media

Some PR offices go even further and pretend to be news outlets themselves.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University was rebuked by its student paper, The Famuan, after university president Elmira Mangum presented an upgrade to its website as the launch of the school’s “official newspaper” in 2015.

“It won’t be the FAMUAN. It’ll be a real newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal,” she reportedly told students. She later tried to quell concern, writing that “the University is not creating a ‘new’ newspaper; it is merely updating and upgrading its existing online news site.”

Doane University in Nebraska received similar criticism in November 2017 for dubbing its PR website “the official news source of Doane University.”

Many PR offices obscure their role through euphemistic titles like “communications,” “public affairs,” or even “news” instead of more direct language like “PR” or “marketing.”

Basi’s office calls itself the University of Missouri’s News Bureau. He said that the office considered changing its name, but decided against it to avoid confusing people at the university familiar with it.

Evans noted that poor media literacy among the general public can make them more susceptible to PR masquerading as news. “Colleges are definitely going to try to get out their message in a way that looks newsy,” he said. “To a certain degree, it’s on the recipients of that information to recognize it for what it is, which is a public relations publication.”

Limiting access

PR offices sometimes try to block reporters from obtaining information they could use to write a negative story.

At Harvard University, The Crimson published an investigative feature in 2013 about the Harvard Public Affairs and Communications office. It explored the concern among some faculty and students that “the rise of HPAC has replaced openness with guardedness and a diverse dialogue with a homogenized message.”

Richard Parker, a media researcher at Harvard, lamented this tight control. “If anything, I think that the willingness to put under the microscope our faults as well as our successes is a measure of how great a university we are,” he told The Crimson.

Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union for Clerical and Technical Workers, told the paper that, as a result of administrative pressure, over the past few years “our members have been internalizing the general idea that they best say, ‘No comment.'”

It’s not just Harvard. Many schools have taken to routing all interviews requests for staff through their office through either explicit rules or established norms.

Evans denounced this trend. “The PR office can and should be a conduit to other voices on campuses, but should never be an impediment to reaching those other voices on campus,” he said.

In June 2017, student media at Keene State University in New Hampshire pressured their administration to adopt a policy preventing such routing after enduring what they described as “a pattern of suppression and obstruction” by the university.

PR officials also sometimes insist on sitting in on and recording student reporters’ interviews with faculty and administrators.

A 2015 resolution by the Society for Professional Journalists condemned interview monitoring. “Government agencies can misuse monitoring and pre-approval requirements as ways to chill speech, spin the message and hide wrongdoing. … When [PR officials] use pre-approval and monitoring to curtail what journalists can ask and how interviewees can answer, they exert a form of control over how reporters understand an issue and what they write — and hence the information the public receives,” it read.

Rich Bagin, the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, which represents PR professionals at K-12 schools and boasts 33 chapters across the U.S., defended this practice. He wrote in a 2014 blog post that it was not about intimidation but accountability: “It levels the playing field and establishes proof about what you said in case a story goes astray from what you actually said during the interview.”

Sometimes universities try to prevent interviews from taking place at all.

The Columbia Missourian reported in September 2017 on an internal crisis planning document for the University of Missouri it obtained through a public records request. It notes that “Historically, the philosophy with the media, especially local media, has been to quickly respond to their request, offering access to spokespeople as requested.” However, the document, which was written in consultation with the Edelman PR firm, which was hired after campus unrest during the fall of 2015, lays out a plan to “shift this mentality to control the narrative, by respectfully providing access on our own terms.” Those terms include a heavier reliance on pre-written statements that can be more tightly controlled.

Parrot, whose firm specializes in crisis communications for universities, noted in a fall 2012 article for the American Council on Education that “there is danger in over-communicating just as there is in under-communicating. Unnecessarily adding too much emotion to a situation could inadvertently inflate it to crisis levels.”

However, in a recent interview with the SPLC, she said her firm “advocates for sharing as much information as we’re legally allowed to share,” and that while withholding information can boost an organization’s reputation in the short term, it inevitably destroys trust in the long term that can be difficult to restore.

The obstruction isn’t limited to the college level. The Education Writers Association surveyed 190 education reporters in 2014, most of whom cover K-12, and found that 76 percent agreed with the statement that “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers schools, institutions or departments are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

An accompanying statement from the association’s Public Editor, Emily Richmond, noted that “even basic requests often require multiple phone calls and emails, negotiating terms, and attempts to limit the scope of an interview. All of these things eat up the valuable—and ever-shrinking—amount of time reporters have to get their jobs done.”

Eroding editorial independence

When spin and controlling access fail, some universities resort to more direct methods of influence.

The editor of the student newspaper at Colorado State University, Erin Douglas, accused the university’s PR office in September 2017 of employing intimidation tactics. “I’ve had poor experiences with the PR at this university. I[‘ve] had them call my reporters and yell at them and tell them they’re being unethical and they’re not being true journalists,” she said. “I just find it totally inappropriate.”

The university’s spokesperson, Mike Hooker, said his office has, on occasion, talked to reporters about inaccuracies in their work, but he said “we do that politely and we do it professionally.” He added that he considers it “a natural part of the relationship” between his office and student media, and that he urges anyone who feels mistreated to reach out to him.

At Santa Clara University in California, administrators reached out to the student paper, The Santa Clara, in March 2017 to request that it take down an article containing a quote from a donor critical of the dean of the school of engineering. The paper receives a large amount of funding from the university, and although this was never explicitly threatened, the paper’s news editor told the SPLC that the fear of financial retaliation was a consideration in their ultimate decision to remove several of the offending paragraphs.

These sorts of incidents, while troubling, do not always reflect malicious intent. According to Evans, sometimes unskilled administrators expect a newspaper to serve “as a PR arm of the college,” which can lead to conflict.

In 2015, Butler University administrators sparked controversy when they appointed Marc Allan, the News Manager for their PR office, as an interim adviser of the student newspaper without releasing him from his role as a PR official. Allan, who previously worked as a professional journalist for over two decades, said he felt he would have been able to compartmentalize his two roles, but that he understands why others perceived there to be a conflict of interest. The university quickly reversed the appointment after a national outcry.

The fact that many universities combine their PR and journalism schools into a single department can also cause problems.

At Indiana University, the Indiana Daily Student published an editorial in 2015 criticizing a proposed merger between the two schools. The university claimed the merger would allow for a partnership with the athletics department to use new technology for sports journalism, but the editors feared that the partnership would present a conflict of interest and erode their editorial independence. The merger went through.

Papers overpowered by PR

The size of PR offices can vary widely among universities. Basi said the University of Missouri currently has five full-time employees in his office, whereas The Crimson‘s 2013 report found that HPAC had over 50 employees at the time, and that similar colleges had around 30.

Student newspapers, operating with budget shortfalls and a limited staff, can sometimes struggle to compete.

“As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases,” write Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their 2010 book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. They were referring to a trend in professional media, but it also impacts colleges.

The SPLC reached out to the PR offices at Harvard, Santa Clara, and the University of North Carolina in October to request interviews, and followed up in November after receiving no response. As of February 2018, they still have not replied.

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You might be interested in: A Pulitzer Prize-winning professor and her students challenge U-Md. over news and disinformation, The Washington Post, 10/16/2018.