UC Davis spent $175k to scrub online pepper spray references
Sam Stanton, Diana Lambert, McClatchy, Apr 13 2016
She really drips oligarchical concern, eyes carefully positioned for caring – RB
The University of California, Davis, contracted with consultants for at least $175k to scrub the Internet of negative online postings following the November 2011 pepper spraying of students and to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda Katehi (above), newly released documents show. The payments were made as the university was trying to boost its image online and were among several contracts issued following the pepper spray incident. Some payments were made in hopes of improving the results computer users obtained when searching for information about the university or Katehi, results that one consultant labelled “venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor.” Others sought to improve the school’s use of social media and to devise a new plan for the UC Davis strategic communications office, which has seen its budget rise substantially since Katehi took the chancellor’s post in 2009. Figures released by UC Davis show the strategic communications budget increased from $2.93m in 2009 to $5.47m in 2015. UC Davis spox said:
We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed. We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.
Money to pay the consultants came from the communications department budget, the spox said. The documents outlining the expenditures were released to The Sacramento Bee this week in response to requests filed last month under the California Public Records Act. The documents reflect an aggressive effort to counteract an avalanche of negative publicity that arose after the Nov 18 2011 pepper-spraying of student protesters by campus police. Fallout from that incident continued for more than a year, as investigations and lawsuits played out and spawned criticism of UC Davis and demands that Katehi resign. In Jan 2013, UC Davis signed on with a Maryland company called Nevins & Associates for a six-month contract that paid $15k/month. A six-page proposal from Nevins promised:
Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in Nov 2011. … Online evidence and the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the Chancellor are being filtered through the 24-hour news cycle, but it is at a tepid pace.
The objectives Nevins outlined for the contract included “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.” That objective was to be achieved by advising UC Davis officials on the use of Google platforms as part of “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor.” Online reputation management is a growing field in which companies offer to improve Google and other search engine results by churning out positive news stories, press releases and announcements to minimize previous negative results. Some schools also use them to help students clean up their online presence before graduation. Doug Elmets, a Sacramento public affairs consultant, said:
I would say that it is common for an individual who might be applying for a job or an individual who has been wrongly maligned to go to a company like Reputation.com, but for a public university that is funded through taxpayer funds, who has repeatedly stepped into a vast hole, it is surprising that they thought this could be done without the light of day shining on the act. It is one more example of how out of touch the leadership at UC Davis is when it comes to their public perspective. … Online reputation management is usually achieved with software that is used to scrub the more outrageous accusations or allegations. If a person puts UC Davis in a search engine, it would eliminate some things initially, but they would only have to dig a little deeper to find anything that needs to be told.
The release of the documents comes as Katehi is once again under fire, this time for her acceptance of seats on private corporate boards, including a textbook publisher and a for-profit university that was under scrutiny by the FTC. First revealed in the SacBee, her outside board positions have sparked calls for her resignation as well as student protests. Students have occupied the reception office outside Katehi’s office since Mar 11 in a sit-in that they say will last until Katehi resigns. The school’s effort to manage its reputation continues. Topousis said the university has hired one outside consultant since Mar 1 to work on the school’s image. On Mar 2, the Sacramento Bee published a story about Katehi taking a board seat on DeVry Education Group, which is under scrutiny from federal investigators. Reaction to word of the online reputation expenditures sparked new criticism by a lawmaker who is one of four to call on Katehi to step down. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said|;
It is troubling that the administration chose to spend scarce public dollars and to nearly double its PR budget when tuition soared, course offerings were slashed and California resident students were being shut out. These findings just raise more questions about university priorities.
The Nevins proposal for UC Davis stated that it would employ the expertise of founder David Nevins, a former chairman of the Maryland Board of Regents, and counter negative search keywords for UC Davis by using a “surge of content with positive sentiment and off-topic subject matter” about the university. The proposal called for the university to adopt “a more involved relationship with Google platforms.” The proposal said:
Google has a propensity to rank Google-hosted content and advertising above others in search results.
It added the suggestion that Katehi consider using Google to host an online “Hangout” to field questions from students and others, something the proposal notes Obama did in 2012 (without any marked gains resulting, IIRC – RB). The proposal also suggested using Google Hangouts to co-host programs with Aggie TV and KDVS, the university’s student-run television and radio stations. It said:
This would be similar to radio shows hosted by KDVS that were attended by … Reagan.
Nevins’ office Wednesday refused to comment on the contract. Records show the university paid Nevins’ firm (just under $93k) through Jul 2013, including travel and lodging costs for Nevins associate Molly White. White did not respond to messages left for her last month or Wednesday, but a resume posted for her on LinkedIn includes the experience of handling “a successful 6-month-long strategic SEO (search engine optimization) and online reputation management campaign for the University of California, Davis and Chancellor Linda Katehi.” UC Davis officials said they still were working to respond to requests for documents by the Bee, and did not provide any reports or memos explaining the results of the contracts. Currently, Google searches for “UC Davis pepper spray” produce nearly 100k results, while searches for “Katehi pepper spray” pull up roughly 10k8 results.
In the aftermath of the pepper spray incident, which occurred as police were attempting to break up a protest and sit-in on the campus quad where tents had been set up, UC Davis officials scrambled to contain the fallout as videos of the incident were viewed millions of times on the web. Court filings showed that campus police Lt John Pike, who was seen calmly spraying seated students in various videos, was bombarded with more than 10,000 text messages and 17,000 emails that included threats and harassment. The university itself released nearly 10,000 documents 11 months after the incident that illustrated the worldwide negative reaction to the incident and officials’ attempts to contain the damage. Three months after that release of documents, the university contracted with Nevins to find ways to remove the incident from Internet searches. The Nevins contract apparently ended after six months, in mid-Jul 2013, but UC Davis’ efforts to improve its online reputation did not. In Jun 2014, the university hired Sacramento-based ID Media Partners in an $82k5 contract to “design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy.” The firm, which does business under the name IDMLOCO, said in documents provided by the university that its “primary goal” was to “achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi.” A second contract was awarded to IDMLOCO in Feb 2015 for a fee of $8k/month up to a limit of $96k, to develop an “integrated social media program for executive communications.” IDMLOCO was awarded a third contract in Sep 2015 for $22k5/month, or a maximum of $67k5, to “provide an assessment of the University’s Strategic Communications redesign.” IDMLOCO said in a proposal to Karl Engelbach, Katehi’s associate chancellor:
Given the recent changes in the Strategic Communications team, this is the right opportunity to fully understand and thoughtfully design an organization that maps to the Chancellor’s goals for the university.
IDMLOCO has offices on L Street and was co-founded by Matt Eagan, an (erstwhile) campaign aide to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bryan Merica, a technology consultant who also is a co-founded of the Fox&Hounds blog that focuses on politics and business. Merica and Eagan did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.