Another lesson on secrecy from Kent State

When you earn front-page coverage 4 times for one story — and all within a 2-week period — it’s usually bad news. Such is the case with Kent State, and I can’t let it pass without comment.

The story that keeps on giving.

The story that keeps on giving.

It began with this story on March 10. Internally, KSU announced plans to hire East Coast marketing firm 160over90 to help redirect the university’s brand. The cost, just north of $100K, is small change in the scheme of things.

Nothing was released to the media, but emails sent to 4,000 employees tend to get around.

When the media called with questions about the deal, Kent State’s commanding generals went into secrecy mode – as has been their pattern. It was 3 days before they shared the contract with the inquiring reporter, and the version they sent was redacted to obscure information on expenses and markups — all routine stuff in any client-agency contract.

This early stonewalling led to a second front-page story, then an editorial, then a third story and then a 4th front-page story – each underscoring the university’s unwillingness to comply with Ohio open records laws.

This is no longer a story about a small consulting contract. It’s a story about secrecy in a major public institution. I’ll spare you the obvious rhetorical questions.

Some members of the president’s cabinet probably see the Akron Beacon Journal is being combative — you know — “out to get them.” They likely view those annoying freedom-of-information requests as petty. But they are anything but petty. You see, journalists depend on open records to do their jobs as government watchdogs. The laws that guarantee information access serve us all and aren’t subject to selective compliance.

By the end of her first year President Warren will probably make some changes in the cabinet she inherited. And as those new generals take their seats around management’s table, let’s hope at least one of them embraces transparent model of public relations.

This post isn’t meant to criticize Kent State’s PR professionals. I know and respect them all, and quite a few have passed through my classrooms over the years. But this time it appears that no one in the ivory tower sought their advice. And if they did, they ignored it.

Let’s hope the advocates of secrecy are shown the door. And let’s hope their replacements prop that door open to let the sunshine in.

Kent State president faces first big leadership/PR challenge

Beverly Warren

Beverly Warren

Update, March 13, 2015. KSU Board of Trustees voted, in executive session this past Wednesday, to extend benefits to dependents of domestic partners, retroactive to January. Hat tip to Bev Warren for doing the right thing. Raspberries to the administrators who fought for discrimination and the status quo for the last 6 months. 

Kent State’s Beverly Warren faces the first major leadership challenge of her 8-month presidency this Wednesday. But you probably haven’t heard about it.

On March 11, Warren will ask the KSU Board of Trustees to expand the university’s insurance coverage to include dependent children of domestic partners — and that includes same-sex partners. The proposal grew from a grievance filed by a faculty member whose 14-month-old son has been denied KSU coverage since the day he was born. This faculty member is legally married to the boy’s mother, but Ohio law doesn’t recognize that marriage nor does it allow joint adoption by same-sex couples.

In an email to an AAUP member last week, Warren said:

My team continues to work toward changes in the wording of the policy regarding benefits for children of domestic partners, and we are very close to finalizing that change. This effort has been ongoing and is the right thing to do. (Source: AAUP-KSU News Alert)

It’s no surprise that the president supports this change. Since her arrival last July, Warren has referred frequently to Kent State’s commitment to inclusion and diversity. But this is still Ohio, OK? Ohio is a state where the GOP controls all branches of state government and where a Republican governor appoints the trustees who oversee each public university. And we know that Ohio Republicans have not supported the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

Supporters see Warren’s proposal as eliminating discrimination from the university’s benefits policy, but it’s not that simple politically. Warren’s willingness to embrace this cause shows moral and political courage on her part, and we should acknowledge her for that.

Reputations at Stake

Since this is a PR blog, let’s look quickly at the potential impact this case could have on Warren’s leadership and the university’s reputation.

Should the new policy be enacted, Warren’s standing within the Kent State community will be enhanced. It provides a chance to showcase her leadership in word and deed. She might ruffle a few feathers in Columbus, but given Kent State’s heritage, it will hardly be the first time that’s happened.

Should the trustees somehow block Warren’s proposal (assuming they have the authority), all stakeholders lose. No one involved has ANYTHING to gain by denying benefits to dependents of same-sex partners — much less an innocent 14-month-old child who happens to have two moms.

The legal battle for gay-lesbian rights is pretty much over in the USA, so why position your organization on the wrong side of history? There is nothing to be gained.

So as PR counselor, I must ask: Why would anyone oppose this policy change?

I don’t have the answer, but there’s a reason the AAUP has reached the final stage before entering formal arbitration on the case. The discriminatory policy remains in place, and someone within the administration is fighting to keep it there.

From a PR perspective, this isn’t about who wins or loses the legal or political struggle. It’s about equal rights and equal protection for all. So I hope the entire Kent State community will get behind President Warren on this one, because, as she said, ““It’s the right thing to do.”

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I serve an elected member of the AAUP-KSU Council and also as an interim member the executive council. Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the position of AAUP-KSU. All information contained in this post is in the public record.

PR debacle: Not-so-secret report topples local police chief

A scandalous story unfolded in my neighborhood in recent weeks. It has all the elements of a made-for-TV movie, which may explain why the rise and fall of Chief David Oliver remained a Page 1 story — and a PR nightmare — for a fortnight.

Chief David Oliver's celebrity included a popular Facebook page and this book, "No Mopes Allowed."

Chief David Oliver’s celebrity included a popular Facebook page and this book.

It’s the story of a man once dubbed “the most popular cop on the Internet.” Oliver, from tiny Brimfield Township, Ohio, used social media and an affable personality to become bigger than life. At one point he had 80,000 followers on Facebook and a hot-selling book. He’d also been the focus of dozens of national media stories, most praising his sense of humor and no-nonsense approach to crime. Continue reading

Career Destination 2020

Most PR guys don’t have the luxury of recalibrating their careers at age 60. Most have been put out to pasture — victims of our youth-driven culture. I’m fortunate to have some control over my career exit, thanks to academic tenure and a union contract. So I’ve made some decisions.

1) I will retire from teaching in 2020, at the end of my 28th year — barring unforeseen variables such as untimely death or another Bush-like presidency that crashes my investments. It breaks my heart to think about leaving this incredible… wait, wait. That’s total bullshit. I can’t freakin’ can’t wait to retire, and with the right incentive I’ll exit long before 2020. Send Powerball tickets. Continue reading

That ‘secret search’ is in the headlines. Again.

When a certain Midwestern state university conducted a presidential search in relative secrecy last year, it rightfully drew criticism from news media and public records advocates everywhere (my summary here). And though none of these media outlets challenged the secret search in court, the university suffered great losses in the court of public opinion.

It was a PR disaster. But on the bright side, it’s one that a new president can use to guide future decisions. Continue reading

NFL’s Snyder fumbles the perfect opportunity

77531-nfl-washington-redskins-helmet-balloonDisagree if you’d like, but using the NFL team name “Redskins” is akin to using the N-word. It’s a racial epithet used only to disparage. It’s not a label that civil and thinking people ever apply to Native Americans.

But Washington team owner Dan Snyder sees it differently. In fact, he even used another N-word to make this point last year: “We will NEVER change the name of the team.” Continue reading

A final word on the Kent State ‘secret search’

As a hardcore utilitarian, I can’t complain much about Kent State’s decision to conduct its presidential search in secret. After all, utilitarians focus on consequences and outcomes — the greatest good for the greatest number. When this “secret search” ended, the outcome was a good one. We like this new president and wish her good fortune.

Nevertheless, I was compelled to criticize the process because it violated the university’s own policies on transparency and likely violated the Ohio open-records laws. The end does not justify the means. Continue reading