Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: UC Davis muddles messages it paid to have massaged

UC Davis paid to repair its online image

Following the 2011 pepper spraying of students, the campus hired consultants to improve the online reputations of UC Davis and Chancellor Linda Katehi.
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Following the 2011 pepper spraying of students, the campus hired consultants to improve the online reputations of UC Davis and Chancellor Linda Katehi.

One of the great movie lines ever spoken is from “Cool Hand Luke,” the 1967 action classic in which Strother Martin sizes up Paul Newman and says: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

For all her accolades, corporate support, academic credentials and fundraising prowess, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has faced more than one crisis due to consistent failures to communicate.

Katehi, 62, a Greek-born engineer and scholar, can distill complex theories into action plans that raise hundreds of millions of dollars for university endowments. She can attract elite talent to UC Davis.

She can fire up Sacramento business leaders with the goal of making UC Davis as valuable to Sacramento’s economy as Stanford and UC Berkeley are to Silicon Valley.

But when Katehi’s job requires humility and common sense over intellectual prowess, her world spins out of control.

The trouble that Katehi is in now mirrors the troubles that have dogged her in the past. They are connected by message paralysis, with her high-priced surrogates seeming to choke on their Olympian talking points as times get tough.

The more UC Davis has spent on its communications budget – from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015 – the more muddled its message has become.

Katehi has fostered a diverse campus where women have gained acceptance in ways other campuses have not. She’s pushed UC Davis to be one of the finest universities in the U.S. She should be soaring, and yet?

Katehi is currently being asked to resign by several state legislators and UC student groups for authorizing expenditures of $175,000 to consultants who promised to clean up negative online stories about her and UC Davis.

Katehi’s nadir was UC Davis police officers using pepper spray to disperse protesting students in 2011. The image of corpulent campus cops spraying kids in their faces with the callous indifference of exterminators – all while the kids held hands and sat cross-legged on the leafy UC Davis quad – went beyond viral. It went worldwide, resulted in multiple investigations and caused many heads to roll at UC Davis.

The irony is that Katehi survived because of her upside as a rainmaker with broad community and institutional support. The irony is that Pepper Spray-gate had largely been relegated to the past by everyone except Katehi.

UCD image makers seem incapable of communicating justifiable strategies in anything beyond robotic-sounding statements.

The irony is that UC Davis has good reasons to manage its online image considering how much fundraising Kathehi’s administration does every year. But UC Davis image makers seem incapable of communicating justifiable strategies in anything beyond robotic-sounding statements.

“We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis told The Sacramento Bee’s Sam Stanton. “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.”

What does that mean exactly? I have no idea.

On the communications front, UC Davis is borrowing language from consultants who boasted of their ability to execute the “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”

Another firm hired by UC Davis proposed that its “primary goal” was to “achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi.” Here is the core problem: The Bee learned of these communications contracts via public records requests.

UC Davis delayed, delayed, delayed until finally releasing them. And when they did, the hired guns hid under rocks rather than comment. Hey, they got paid! But Katehi was left holding the bag. She was left with the public perception that her surrogates were trying to erase the digital record of pepper spray. That seems preposterous and impossible.

There should be a more reasonable explanation. UC Davis representatives should be working overtime to set the record straight. But Topousis was apparently too busy to talk to me Friday. Katehi said at Saturday’s Picnic Day event that a response was coming Monday.

Meanwhile, searches for pepper-spray video have spiked.

Katehi is again under fire and her achievements are again threatened.

Here is what somebody working for her needs to say: “We weren’t trying to eliminate pepper-spray stories. That’s impossible. We are always trying to promote our narrative of a vibrant campus full of innovation. Here is exactly what we were doing to promote ourselves online. We made a mistake on pepper spray and we’ve learned from it. Here is how.”

UC Davis has secured at least $700 million in research grants for the last four years. Yet Katehi is getting crushed for $175,000 in money that came out of her communications budget.

All universities must be able to tell their own stories to attract grants, talent, students and investment.

That’s another message knot UC Davis has failed to untangle. The FAQs posted on the UC Davis site Friday said: “No taxpayer funds or tuition dollars were used to pay for these services.” This contradicts what the university said earlier in the week.

But Katehi’s communications mishaps weren’t stealing money from students. All universities have communications budgets. All universities must be able to tell their own stories to attract grants, talent, students and investment.

UC Davis has great stories to tell. QS World University Rankings lists UC Davis as the top veterinary and agricultural schools in the world. UC Davis’ endowment reached $1 billion in 2015. UC Davis has the most California graduates of any UC school since 2010. In the previous academic year, nearly half of recent faculty hiring has been women, and nearly 25 percent are people of color. And UC Davis has the most women undergraduate science and technology majors in the UC system.

Meanwhile, Sacramento business leaders see Katehi as someone who “gets it,” and who wants campus innovation to jump over the Yolo Causeway and invigorate Sacramento’s government-dependent economy.

All of this is an amazing story to tell, but what we have at UC Davis is a failure to communicate.

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