Last November, as UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi was searching for ways to improve the university’s online image, she dispatched staff to companies in Switzerland, Texas and Maryland to study their digital operations.
The trips cost more than $17,000 in airfare, lodging and other expenses, according to travel records and emails released to The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday in response to a May 5 California Public Records Act request.
The visit to Switzerland by three members of the team came after Katehi visited Nestlé’s Digital Acceleration Lab in June 2015 in Vevey, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, records indicate.
“This gave me an idea to create a similar lab at UC Davis, primarily to help us accelerate our understanding and use of social media in communicating internally and externally and in understanding how UC Davis is perceived both in California but in the U.S. and around the world,” Katehi wrote in a Sept. 13 email to an official of the Swiss-based food and beverage giant.
“We have started the process of putting the team together that will create the lab together,” Katehi added. “We will tremendously benefit if we could send two or three of our people for a day’s visit to your lab so they can get an idea of how it is set up and how the training programs are in place.”
The Nestlé Digital Acceleration lab in Switzerland features banks of large “listening” screens that track everything from real-time online conversations and interactions about Nestlé and competitors’ products to recipe tweets, likes and comments on Facebook, according to information posted by the company online.
Nestlé also established an “innovation outpost” in Silicon Valley in 2013 to “deepen its relationships with consumers online and in social media,” according to a press release from the company. Earlier this year, the company expanded that presence, adding marketing and technology employees to a new office at Pier 17 in San Francisco.
The November 2015 overseas trip came as UC Davis was searching for new ways to improve its image worldwide, and after it had spent at least $175,000 on contracts with two firms that promised to help erase negative search engine results about the university stemming from the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students by campus police.
Katehi was suspended and placed under investigation in April over those contracts, as well as allegations involving nepotism at UC Davis and misuse of student funds. The chancellor, who also was under severe criticism for her acceptance of lucrative seats on private corporate boards, has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting her suspension by UC President Janet Napolitano.
Findings from an investigation into Katehi’s actions by former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag are expected to be delivered to Napolitano by Aug. 1.
Documents show that three UC Davis officials traveled to Switzerland from Nov. 2 through Nov. 6 “by order of the chancellor” as part of a newly formed digital acceleration task force.
“I was assigned to be the leader of an investigatory team to visit and gather recommendations at Nestlé’s Digital Acceleration Team’s laboratory,” Florencio A. Inzunza, director of information systems planning and support at UC Davis, wrote in a travel expense report.
Inzunza was joined by Sallie A. Poggi, a social media strategist in the UC Davis strategic communications office hired in October, and Amy Azzarito, digital product manager for the university library.
An agenda for the one-day meeting at Nestlé shows the officials participated in a tour of the company’s “consumer engagement centre” and met with digital experts who provide social media training to firms and other entities worldwide.
“Chancellor Linda Katehi would really appreciate us gathering a lot of information, both on the logistics and communications/analytics side, to have a better understanding of what it would take to build a DA (digital acceleration) lab within our University of California, Davis campus,” Inzunza wrote in an email to a Nestlé official. “As I mentioned, the chancellor was very impressed when she visited a few months ago and is now really supporting this initiative.”
Inzunza, Poggi and Azzarito were later joined by John Mounier, associate director for visual communications at UC Davis, on trips in December to Austin, Texas, and Bethesda, Md. Those trips were to visit social media experts at Dell Inc. in Texas and Marriott’s headquarters in Bethesda.
Records show total expenses for the trips were $17,447.12, including airfare, meals, lodging and a $184.98 “office gift” to Nestlé ordered from 1-800-Flowers.com. The companies did not charge the university for the visits and training, said Dana Topousis, executive director of news and media relations for UC Davis.
That gift was to “Nestle’s Digital team for hosting our tour of their Digital Acceleration Center,” Inzunza’s travel records state, and was approved by Katehi chief of staff Karl Engelbach.
“Last fall, Chancellor Katehi was interested in creating a training program for faculty, staff and students to better tell their stories as well as stories about UC Davis through social media,” said Topousis. “She asked us to learn as much as we could about how other large organizations were developing similar programs.
“As a result, one person from Strategic Communications traveled with other UC Davis employees to Nestle headquarters in Switzerland to visit with their digital acceleration team.” she said. “The Nestle team is a world leader in this area and responsible for training their employees about how to communicate about the company and all of their products. The UC Davis team visited Nestle as well as Dell headquarters in Austin, Texas and Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland.”
Topousis said UC Davis officials considered visiting Nestlé’s training office in Silicon Valley, but “they determined that the Bay Area location was not the same thing as was built in Switzerland. The outpost in the Bay Area focuses on tech innovation and relationships within Silicon Valley, and there was no social media command center.”
The digital acceleration task force was charged with presenting a report to Katehi on its findings after the visits, the documents state.
Katehi spokesman Larry Kamer, who was hired by the chancellor’s lawyer after Katehi was suspended, defended the trips Wednesday.
“Chancellor Katehi is immensely proud of this effort, which would have created the first and only digital acceleration lab at a university anywhere,” Kamer said.
He criticized Napolitano’s office for releasing the documents without any notification to Katehi.
“Once again, the University of California is playing games and selectively releasing information related to Chancellor Katehi as it suits their purposes,” Kamer said. “It is further evidence that there is no intention of doing a full, fair and objective investigation of the facts since we don’t have these documents in our possession.
“UC did not give us the courtesy of letting us know they were releasing these documents, nor do we know what the documents say.”
The records released do not indicate whether Katehi’s visit to Nestlé in June 2015 was a private trip or paid for by UC Davis, and also do not reflect whether she returned in early December. She told Nestlé in an email that a December visit “is very convenient as I am planning to be in Europe at that time for a meeting in Italy.”
Katehi’s full travel records still have not been made available through Public Records Act requests The Bee has filed in recent months, and UC officials said last week that responses to the requests likely would not be provided until July 1, after interviews for the investigation into Katehi’s actions are expected to be complete.
Despite that, UC Davis has provided a handful of records this week and has signaled more may be forthcoming.
Since Katehi became chancellor in 2009, the university’s strategic communications budget increased from $2.93 million to $5.47 million last year.
Even in her absence, UC Davis continues its efforts to bolster its communications efforts. Records released to The Bee late Tuesday show UC Davis hired a new media communications manager, Kimberly Hale, on June 1 for a one-year, $120,000 contract.
Hale previously has worked for two firms that have handled crisis communications for UC Davis, Blue Moon Consulting and Marsh Risk Consulting.
“The last few months we realized we have a gap and need to have an expert on staff, instead of hiring a consultant,” said Topousis, who hired Hale.
UC Davis also is advertising for a new director of web marketing for its Graduate School of Management, a position that pays up to $108,900, and a “communication manager for change initiatives” for the Chief Financial Officer’s office, a job listed at $108,000.