Friday, April 15, 2016

UGA's PR Problem

I've noticed since the hiring of UGA's new vice president in charge of marketing and some such, all we see in news stories these days is an email response to journalists' questions.

What utter bullshit. I'll explain why below. First, and most recently, this story on faculty salaries is a good example. Near the bottom, we get this tripe (sorry for its length, this is how my local paper ran it online):
Michelle Garfield Cook, UGA’s associate provost for institutional diversity, defended the ERS study in an email.

“The university selected an independent consulting firm with more than 30 years of experience working with universities. Using a qualified, third-party consultant prevents potential conflicts of interest,” she wrote. “ERS Group applies an industry-standard methodology and has prepared pay equity studies at research institutions including Stanford University, Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Auburn University and the University of Kentucky. The study took into account factors that legitimately impact compensation, including academic discipline and rank as well as tenure status. Other factors that legitimately impact compensation include education level, work experience and administrative assignments, among other factors. The university is committed to gender equity and intends to review faculty salaries on a regular basis, at least every five years.”
Oh Hollander, you say, this is just one case, so stop making a big deal out of nothing. A couple of days earlier, more and similar tripe in this story. Sorry, again this is how the paper has it online. It doesn't say it's an email, but it certainly reads like one:
Karri Hobson-Pape, UGA’s vice president for markeint and communications, had this comment on the pay numbers:

“The trends you note are simply due to the recession period when our longer-term UGA faculty members could not receive merit raises,” she wrote in an email. “This is a challenge we are now addressing through three consecutive annual faculty raises generously permitted through the Board of Regents. In addition, we are also now in a position to hire incoming faculty at more competitive market rates. President Morehead and Provost Whitten share a strong commitment to increasing faculty salaries; it has been and will continue to be one of their top priorities.”
It's a basic journalism rule that you don't give sources the questions in advance. That's what an email does, gives academic bureaucrats the questions in advance, allows them to craft meaningless, stiff, bullshit responses, and there's then no opportunity for a follow-up question to point or quiz them on inconsistencies or to challenge the statements.

It's a PR flak's wet dream. It's a journalist's nightmare. And the public loses in the process.

So either UGA has decided its people cannot handle telephone or face-to-face conversations, or the local paper is not willing to challenge the administrators. Here's how I would handle this. I'd have a sit-down with the VP of Whatever and explain this is unacceptable, that either you respond to questions in a live setting or we'll simply run the stories without your carefully crafted crap, because we're not gonna put up with this bullshit email thing. And I'd put in every story that the university refused to respond to questions unless provided in advance. I'd put it in a friggin box. In bold face. Like this.

Yeah, that's how I'd handle it.


Kelly Simmons said...

I don't disagree with your premise, however you are making the assumption that a reporter has actually attempted a face-to-face or phone interview. In working with student writers, as well as some who have been in the profession for a number of years, I find that the majority try to do their reporting via the Internet and email and they see nothing wrong with that. As an adjunct in the Grady College, I found that even when I gave direct instructions to talk to a real person, half of the students would come in with emailed responses to emailed questions.
It's not just students. We have professional communicators working on this campus who don't see the problem with pulling information off of a web site without checking its veracity.
Those of us who had no choice but to repeatedly call sources or sit outside their offices for hours on end know the value of a conversation. Those who only converse with even their friends and family by text do not.

Hollander said...

Yup, I don't disagree that students especially engage in path-of-least-resistance journalism, or they put off contacting sources until right before a deadline. In my examples above, both are ABH stories. Hardly the NYTimes, I agree. There are really only two or three, maybe four, news orgs regularly covering UGA (R&B, ABH, AJC, and GradyNewsource). And of those, AJC rarely covers news, just sports. That leaves three new orgs, hardly a stressful PR situation for someone to be available when news breaks to give live interviews. That is, after all, part of the PR job description.

My main concern is this use of email replies. About the only exception to the "avoid email" rule (OK, it's more like a guideline) is when someone is geographically distant or, more likely, when the topic is complex (science and medical) and you want to make sure you get it right.

I also blame the news orgs for settling for this kind of info. Just don't.

Hollander said...

Plus now I gotta wonder how you came across this, Kelly. I have ones of readers worldwide. Twitter? Or has the VP of Mkt/Comm put out a hit on me? (she'll have to get in line)

Kelly Simmons said...

Facebook :)