‘Get me off the Google,’ UC Davis Chancellor Katehi urged communications staff

In the end, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi was done in largely by pepper spray and ego.

Although she faced serious allegations when UC President Janet Napolitano suspended her in April, the investigative report into her actions that was released Tuesday found the most damning evidence was a near-obsession with her own reputation, something that began when she first assumed the chancellor’s post in 2009 and escalated following the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students by campus police.

When she was appointed chancellor, news accounts questioned her tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was provost and allegations emerged that children of politically influential backers were given preference in admissions.

Katehi denied knowing anything about those admissions. The report found that she was so concerned she would be tainted by the scandal that she called an aide at UC Davis, whose name was redacted from documents, and asked him to take quick action.

“Though Chancellor Katehi was on vacation, she contacted and asked him to edit her Wikipedia page concerning her knowledge of the Illinois admissions scandal,” the report found. “(The aide) advised the Chancellor that they should not edit her online biography because Wikipedia would attribute any edits to UC Davis. Staff made the revisions under protest.”

The efforts to protect her reputation expanded intensely two years later, when she was subjected to worldwide scorn after the pepper-spray incident.

“The evidence indicates that Chancellor Katehi was acutely concerned with damage to her personal reputation following the 2011 pepper spray incident, and that she was interested in the consultants working to improve her own online reputation as well as the reputation of UC Davis,” the report concluded, noting that Katehi was involved in and approved hiring three firms for $407,000 to repair her online image, as well as that of UC Davis.

Katehi and her staff sought out firms on the East Coast and in Sacramento, meeting with them and discussing how to create a LindaKatehi.com webpage, edit Wikipedia posts and submit op-eds under her name to publications that might crowd out negative press from others.

The report noted that improving Katehi’s reputation also would improve that of the university’s. But documents show that she constantly sought help in what one aide recalled as her desire that they “get me off the Google.”

“Linda wants to understand generally how we plan to address the lingering negative pepper spray-related online search content associated with her name,” reads a September 2012 email from Barry Shiller, who was brought in after the pepper-spray incident to handle her communications strategy.

At one point in 2014, Katehi emailed staff member Luanne Lawrence, saying she wanted to speak to her about “Google in general.”

“I did a search recently and it seems to be the worse (sic) I have seen in a long time,” Katehi wrote. “I am afraid we have regressed and would like to discuss with you a change in strategy.”

Katehi’s quest to get rid of online references to the pepper-spray incident led to the hiring of Nevins and Associates, a Baltimore company Katehi found after seeking help from a social media consultant, the report stated. Nevins promised to “expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the chancellor.”

The company collected more than $92,000 before UC Davis decided to replace it with a firm called Purple Strategies, a Virginia company that was paid $44,600 over three months to focus “on improving Chancellor Katehi’s personal narrative and online identity, primarily through her Wikipedia page,” the report found.

That company produced a “UC Davis Bible” filled with suggestions on how to “create a personal narrative for the chancellor” and “engage the Wikipedia community.”

“Notably, the proposal did not include a strategy to manage UC Davis’ Wikipedia page; it was exclusively focused on Chancellor Katehi’s page,” the report stated.

After that contract ended, the school hired Sacramento firm Idmloco “at the behest of Chancellor Katehi,” the report says.

That firm was paid $270,000 under three contracts to enhance the school’s and Katehi’s images and to provide “listening reports” on how online news reports and social media were referring to both.

“Idmloco submitted 27 of these listening reports. Sixteen were focused solely on Chancellor Katehi, seven were focused solely on UC Davis, and four discussed media stories for both the University and Chancellor,” the investigators found.

The company also focused on editing the Davis LocalWiki page, according to an April 2015 Idmloco email to Katehi Chief of Staff Karl Engelbach.

“In addition, we were able to find a little more information on the individual that is making all the edits on the Chancellor’s LocalWiki page,” the email noted.

The firm cautioned against trying to delete Katehi’s Wikipedia page altogether, noting in a November 2014 report that such a move could draw attention.

“We recommend (forgoing) any attempts to delete the Linda Katehi Wikipedia page,” the firm wrote. “Due to the current status of the page’s content and sources, as well as the page’s high traffic (940 views in the past 30 days), any attempt to delete the page will be sighted and result in undesirable criticism, and will likely be counterproductive to the intended goal.”

The next month, in December 2014, Idmloco updated its efforts, noting that “we will continue to (discreetly) update the Chancellor’s Wikipedia page.”

“We will not delete any negative content from the Wikipedia page, but add in new content to push the negative content down,” the firm wrote. “Once we fully optimize the Wikipedia page, we will focus our efforts on DavisWiki and other Wiki pages.”

That memo also noted that “the LindaKatehi.com site is approved to launch.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Related stories from Sacramento Bee