The headline reads: “UC Davis spent thousands to scrub pepper-spray references from the Internet.” The latest big scoop by the Sacramento Bee is framed up like it’s the next Watergate scandal.
This has been big news here in the Golden State: University of California, Davis officials paid $175,000 to have internet postings pushed down by promoting other, more recent and more positive university news. Moreover, they paid to launch extensive social media and brand-building campaigns to help the university move beyond that fateful day in November 2011, when campus police pepper sprayed a group of Occupy movement protesters as they sat on the ground and refused to disperse.
So, why has UC Davis been attacked for deploying reputation management tactics when nearly every sophisticated communications team in America does the same thing every day?
Many answers to this question point back to an inherent distrust of the UC Davis leader, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, who is remains in place years after the pepper-spray incident, and her weak response, occurred. In the eyes of Davis students, faculty and others, Chancellor Katehi didn’t handle that first incident well. She had been somewhat controversial prior to this event, and now it stands to reason that there is little patience years later when she’s caught directing her team to scrub this reputational stain off her and the university’s public consciousness.
Undoubtedly, the UC Davis communications team has been vexed by the pepper spray incident. And promoting myriad campus goodwill and good works in an effort to drive the pepper spray debacle down Google search results isn’t really all that objectionable. The problem lies in that the approach treated the symptoms rather than addressing the core issues. Besides, as communicators, they should know better than anyone – and should have advised their Chancellor – that pushing this story down will not change history.
Any organization in crisis is naturally going to try to recover from it quickly. The only way to do that is to embrace the truth of that crisis. They cannot cloud, obscure or hide from it. They must acknowledge and begin to address the elements that resulted in the crisis. In doing so, they will be using new actions (not just stories) to re-frame the brand truth.
The university should have applied its resources and efforts toward acknowledging and learning from its wrongs. Then, its priority would have been making legitimate and earnest strides to ensure the improved culture would never allow something like this to happen ever again. The path they chose instead wasn’t illegal, it just wasn’t right. They got “caught,” and now in the eyes of the media and the public, there’s not much of a difference. It’s just wrong.
There is a cautionary tale in all of this for every CEO and every brand in the world. People today – young or old – don’t have an expectation for perfection. They have an expectation for honesty, transparency and contrition when a wrong has been committed. This is harder that making an apology, to be sure. It isn’t always easy to do the right thing. But it’s always the right thing.
Written by Daryl McCullough, Chief Executive Officer & Global Chairman, Citizen Relations