As the University of Oregon tries to boost its image nationally, one measure of success UO executive Tim Clevenger touts is the number of times a single story — favorable to the university — appears in newspapers across the United States.
An Associated Press story about the UO’s $20 million branding initiative, for example, ran in 230 newspapers, Clevenger recently told the UO Board of Trustees.
When a Duck football tight end dumped a bucket of snow on a hapless UO professor in 2013, the story appeared in 225 media outlets, rolling out as far as TV 2 in Norway. A video of the incident drew 4.7 million YouTube hits.
A Duck running back punched an opponent on the football field in 2009, and the story rocketed through 2,136 newspapers and other media outlets. Even a UO effort to engineer good national attention — by giving The New York Times and Sports Illustrated an exclusive first look at its new football operations center in 2013 — wasn’t an all-out success. Of 311 online comments on The New York Times article about the center — “Oregon Embraces ‘University of Nike’ Image” — negative reactions outnumbered the positive 3-to-1.
When two UO presidents departed abruptly in 2011 and 2014 — one fired, the other under a cloud of mystery — the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “The revolving door to the president’s office at the University of Oregon is spinning again.”
Most recently, the UO’s great misfortune on the national stage was when an accusation of rape was leveled against UO three basketball players — days after the White House released its “Not Alone” report on sexual violence.
The UO incident set off a drum beat of challenging news.
All of this “doesn’t help” an institution that’s trying to brand itself as an excellent university in the eyes of the nation, said Clevenger, associate vice president for communications, marketing and brand management.
Not even the deep-pocketed branding initiative that’s running upbeat ads in cities all over the West can change the topic in the national news, said Forrest Anderson, a California-based consultant whose clients include the Bank of America, Disney Imagineering and Stanford Athletics.
“You can have positive news, but it can’t take away the negative news,” Anderson said. “You can advertise, but you cannot control what the news says — or what gets said on social media.”
The UO’s leadership can choose to ignore negative media reports in the hopes that the branding campaign makes a bigger noise, Anderson said.
“They can ignore it, but they do it at their peril,” he said. “They won’t be able to repair their image that way.”
The first task is to “get your house in order,” he said. If there are issues that put the organization at odds with what “society is accepting,” resolve them, he said.
“You have to align the organization with the image you want to present. The real issue is: Communications can only do so much,” he said. “You cannot turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse.”
He noted British Petroleum’s dilemma. The multinational had an “abysmal record on the environment” before its 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, he said.
“They’ve always been so profitable that they decided they could just duck. That’s what they’re doing. They’re doing everything they can to avoid paying for” the spill, he said.
Black eyes and blackouts
“On the other hand, you can take a company like Toyota, which had a few problems with the gas pedal (sticking). They recovered from that pretty well, and the reason they recovered is because they have a good record long-term. The organization has to behave, and then you can communicate about behaving.”
The pressing challenge for universities is sexual violence, Anderson said.
“It’s a way that society is changing now. It’s going to be less likely to accept that kind of thing,” he said. “That issue is not going to go away, and universities have got to find a way to address it.”
For the UO, the subject has led from one black eye to the next.
First, the UO chose to release little information about the incident. The UO responded to records requests from newspapers — including The Register-Guard and The New York Times — with color-coded redactions that concealed the text of most of the documents.
Publications ran photos of the colorful redactions.
That looked like a cover-up, Anderson said. “It just looks like (the university has) something to hide. It’s my take as a general consumer. ‘Oh, they must be hiding something’ if they don’t want to let us know.”
University lawyers typically advise in favor of blacking-out information, Anderson said. “One of the signs of a good CEO is that sometimes they ignore their lawyers. They say that might be the legally prudent thing to do, but is that the right thing to do? And they do the right thing,” he said.
More news stories followed when the UO countersued the student who made the rape complaint; when UO administrators accessed that student’s mental health records; and when the UO took action against employees who had brought to light the health-records breach.
Eventually, the UO backed away from the countersuit and returned the student’s therapy records.
“That was smart,” Anderson said, “but the smarter thing was not to do it in the first place.”
Knowing the audience
Michael Stoner, a Chicago-based higher education marketing expert, said most of the bad-news stories could have zero impact on the audiences the UO cares most about.
Many of those negative stories may not be on issues that “consumers, parents and prospective students are paying a lot of attention to,” Stoner said.
However, Anderson can’t believe that’s true of sexual assault.
“Rape is a reason to not send your daughter” to a university, he said.
The UO’s branding initiative also faces a negative trend that’s not of the university’s making.
Stoner calls it the “edupocalypse,” or the hurricane of news stories on the mounting student debt — usually shown crushing a student who is pursuing a degree in the humanities.
The UO must sell audiences on the value of a liberal arts education in today’s economy.
One problem the UO faces: Oregon opinion leaders see the UO as expensive and not directly linked to outcomes such as jobs for graduates, according to 160over90, the UO’s branding firm.
In-state prospective students see the UO as more expensive than Oregon State University and less focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, 160over90 found.
Part of the branding job for the UO is to make the public aware of the breadth of research and academic rigor of the institution, according to 160over90.
“There’s a real need among colleges and universities to underscore the value of education — to communicate outcomes and values to parents and prospective students, because there’s a lot of concern right now in the marketplace,” Stoner said.
Anderson suggests universities conduct a “relationship audit” with prospective students and their parents, opinion leaders, donors, alumni and others.
“It takes understanding the wants and the needs of the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The (UO) is getting tripped up on things that people care about — like dumping snow on a professor. That just fits into (the) athletes misbehaving” story line, Anderson said.