Two new stories to add to the three printed Saturday in the Register Guard about UO’s branding efforts. These are all online now, new ones in print Sunday. I’ve posted extracts with a few comments for all five stories below. Follow the links to the stories, and please consider leaving your comments on the RG website, where they will be read by many more people than here.
This series of five stories is another tour de force for Diane Dietz and the RG’s Higher Ed reporting. Rich Read at the Oregonian must be a little green.
I’m no journalism professor, but I’m gradually learning a little bit about how reporting works. The UO administrators that Diane Dietz quoted in these stories really didn’t want to have to answer questions about where the money was going. But they knew they would have to respond if Dietz had documents. So they tried to stonewall her public records requests. Once the District Attorney made Dave Hubin’s office produce the public records, the administrators had to give interviews, or be embarrassed with “no comments”. And so Dietz got these revealing quotes from Chuck Lillis, Tim Clevenger, and others.
There are tens of millions of dollars and UO’s national reputation or “brand” at stake here. I know that at least a few UO donors have been questioning the wisdom of the road that the UO administration and the new Board are taking us down. These news stories are going to help fuel those questions. Once again the RG has done the University of Oregon a great service with their reporting. I’m guessing those UO administrators who worked to keep the basic facts secret are going to see it a little differently, of course, and that they’ll keep trying to hide public records as well.
With its scores of communicators, UO tries to find one voice. Diane Dietz, here.
Dietz goes through UO’s long and expensive history of failed branding efforts:
The UO already employs platoons of communicators, marketers and public relations specialists — and it farms out millions of dollars to outside contractors for the same kind of work.
The UO’s marketing and PR machinery, in fact, has become so costly and unwieldy that top UO officials are taking steps to figure out if it’s working well.
Citing a need to coordinate the extensive effort to sell the university, interim President Scott Coltrane in mid-March imposed a hiring freeze on communications and marketing-type jobs, except with special approval.
…The hiring of the top-flight 160over90 firm about a year ago under a three-year $3.4 million contract marks the second major branding effort the university has undertaken.
In 2008, the university signed a three-year, $1.2 million contract with global firm Fleishman-Hillard for a “branding, positioning and media strategy” to make the UO sought after.
… Still, on staff, the UO has more than 100 marketing, public relations, strategic communications and digital communications employees, a review of the UO’s personnel records shows. All work largely in the service of the UO’s image-building. The total salary and benefits cost the UO about $10 million a year.
A hiring spurt added as many as 20 new marketing and communications employees to campus over the past 18 months. And, despite Coltrane’s recent freeze, the hiring continues.
… Separately, UO schools and colleges have launched their own self-promotional efforts, spending at least $3 million in recent years on marketing, advertising, public relations and branding contracts.
Four years ago, the UO School of Journalism and Communications — SOJC — sought to define itself as a “destination” school for journalism students nationally, said Tim Gleason, dean at the time.
… Alumnus Tracy Wong’s A-list agency, the Seattle-based Wongdoody, put his staff to work for the college. The staff helped write the SOJC slogan: “Ethics. Action. Innovation.” … Wongdoody did the work at cost — $20,000, Gleason said. “If we had taken it out to an open bid, it was several hundred thousand dollars worth of work,” he said. “We were very fortunate.”
… In 2013, the Lundquist College of Business hired Songlines Communications of Bend — for $36,000 — to create a unifying “brand story” that “succinctly, elegantly and emotionally communicates the unique identity of the Lundquist College of Business,” according to the contract. Next, the college bought $12,000 worth of marketing advice from Fixx Consulting of Portland. … De Kluyver also OK’d a $100,000 contract with White Horse Productions in Portland in fall 2013 to redesign the college’s website with a “lightweight, forward-thinking” touch. De Kluyver is featured on a website video — wearing trademark suspenders — playing a banjo and explaining that teaching business management is like improvising in jazz.
Two years later, 160over90 is refashioning the Lundquist brand, writing brochures and ads to promote MBA programs; eventually, the firm will redo the college’s website, Clevenger said.
UO’s ever helpful 160over90 branders even provide the administrators that sign their $3M check with talking points on how to fight off faculty who think it’s a waste:
The UO’s agency, 160over90, warns its university clients about likely opposition to their branding plans from “a disgruntled tenured professor in the humanities department with a dull ax to grind,” according to 160over90’s humorously written manual for university administrators.
… At the UO, Clevenger fretted about which faculty should be invited to talk with 160over90 to help discern the essence of the UO, according to an email obtained by The Register-Guard through a public records request. Let deans select four to five professors to participate, Clevenger wrote. “I don’t want any open call to faculty,” he wrote.
Yes, best to get that essence from the usual brown-nosers. Not that it matters, Chairman Lillis has spoken:
Chuck Lillis, president of the UO Board of Trustees, built a $60-billion-plus empire on his background in marketing. Lillis earned a doctorate in marketing at the UO in 1972. …
Lillis, the inaugural chairman of the UO board — and $14 million donor to the UO business college — is squarely behind the 160over90 campaign.
“We can’t spend $3 million more intelligently than this,” he said recently.
Actually, I think it’s more like $20M over 5 years, plus the $10M per year in internal salaries. But whatever, here’s Sunday’s second story, on how little this branding crap can do to counteract reality:
Blizzard of bad news may be tough for UO to sweep aside. Diane Dietz, here:
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.
But Google searches show that bad news can travel farther and faster, underscoring the difficulties UO marketers face.
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, three to one.
… The UO’s leadership can choose to ignore negative media reports in the hopes that the branding campaign makes a bigger noise, [Some PR guy named Forrest Anderson] said. … The pressing challenge for universities now is sexual violence …
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. [Coffee cups and t-shirts available at UniversityofNike.com.]
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.
5/15/2015: RG analyzes UO’s “What the if?” branding campaign and JH’s trust destroying secrecy
The stories below were posted Friday and in the Saturday printed paper. Read them all, and please consider leaving comments on the RG website, where they will be read by more people than here. I’ve just posted extracts with a few comments:
1) UO’s $20 million national branding campaign holds promise, faces steep challenges. Diane Dietz, here:
Chuck Lillis thrills to the sight of the University of Washington rising in the top 100 best-colleges rankings.
But Lillis, the current — and first — chairman of the University of Oregon Board of Trustees, frankly doesn’t like what he sees in the rankings when it comes to the UO, where he also went to school.
“I want us to see our rankings and have goosebumps,” he told the UO Senate recently. “I don’t like these rankings that are 92nd, 104th, 86th. That just isn’t good enough.”
So in May 2014, a month before the Board of Trustees formally won control of the university, the UO quietly started a $20 million, donor-funded plan that included hiring an edgy Philadelphia branding firm — 160over90 — to elevate the university’s stature.
To put this in perspective, the $20M the board has decided to spend on PR would have paid for start-up packages for 10 to 20 top research professors. They are gambling instead that “What the If” TV ads will encourage enrollment of out of state students willing to pay full tuition – meaning not academically gifted enough to get scholarships from other schools:
But in recent decades, the UO found itself at the bottom of the AAU pack in key academic excellence measures, says a report by interim UO President Scott Coltrane.
For a research university, the UO is short on tenured faculty, doctoral students, research spending, research production and high-achieving students, says the report. Bringing all those measures up to snuff would take an endowment of billions, says Lillis.
“We’re financially weak,” Lillis told the Senate. “We’re very weak if we want to be a great university.”
Unexpectedly, it seems our 160over90 branders agree with my analysis of how this $20M campaign is in some ways needed to counteract the pernicious influence of Duck football wins on UO’s national reputation. After all, what parent wants to spend $200K sending their child to a big-time football party school for 4 years?
The sports success has been an asset and a drawback for the UO’s new academic branding initiative.
The university’s academic side, in adopting the Bakas-designed “O” as its logo, tapped onto the sports brand that Nike built. The UO president at the time, Dave Frohnmayer, wanted the “O” to represent the whole university. “If you’re not represented by something,” he said, “people don’t know what you stand for.”
Some faculty saw that as a takeover of the university’s image by Nike and the football team — a contention the UO’s new branding firm assumes is true.
“Obviously the university has a big problem getting out the message that we’re a serious academic institution,” Bill Harbaugh, economics professor and publisher of the uomatters.com blog, said recently. “The football program has co-opted the university’s message; it’s all about the Duck brand.”
A key UO image challenge, according to the brand strategy recently developed by 160over90 for the UO, is the “unbalanced national perception of the university, currently dominated by athletics.”
So, instead of spending $20M on academics, we have to spend it on advertising. How convenient for 160over90 – that just happens to be the business they are in!
Will it work? Even PR flacks like UO’s $209K Chief Strategic Communicator Tim Clevenger seem to think it might make more sense to spend the money on science instead:
The university needs academic substance to be great, said Tim Clevenger, a long-time private sector ad man whom the UO put in charge of the new branding effort.
The university needs the academic corollary of a Rose Bowl or a national championship — a scientific breakthrough, a Nobel Prize win, a reinforced perch among the nation’s pre-eminent schools.
“A brand can have a really cool logo and neat ads,” Clevenger said, “but if there’s no substance behind it, it doesn’t mean anything.”
2) The RG’s second story, here, goes on to explain some of the ways Clevenger is spending his $20M.
Let’s just say it’s not on substance.
3) UO slow to release records on its cutting-edge branding effort. Diane Dietz, here.
This last story goes into the enormous difficulties the Register Guard had in dealing with Dave Hubin’s Public Records Office to get the branding documents. When UO wants to spin reporters about something that makes the administrators look good, they’ve got plenty of well paid PR flacks like Clevenger, Tobin Klinger, Craig Pintens, etc. Money is no object. Not enough flacks on staff? Hire Anna Richter-Taylor from Gallatin Public Affairs to consult, at about $300 an hour.
But when a reporter wants some documents that might have some actual facts, and might actually inform the public about what’s really going on in Johnson Hall, they send them to Dave Hubin’s black hole of transparency and trust. Dietz reports:
The University of Oregon is breaking a sweat telling the nation about the benefits of a UO education.
But it has moved at a crawl to disclose basic public information about the cost and other aspects of that branding campaign. It took an order from the Lane County District Attorney’s Office to force the UO to produce some records.
When the Legislature granted the UO independence from most state oversight in 2013, lawmakers required it to remain a public university and to continue to obey Oregon public records and meetings laws.
In June and September 2014, The Register-Guard submitted records requests seeking documents on the work that 160over90 and other branding and marketing firms were doing for the UO. Tim Clevenger, the UO’s associate vice president for communications, marketing and brand management, in May had established 160over90 as the “ad agency of record.”
The university charged the newspaper $800 for the June request and $500 for the September request to supply hundreds of pages of documents.
Then, in both cases, the UO took more than three months to begin releasing documents.
And in both cases, the UO heavily blacked out some documents and simply neglected to provide many others that were in its possession, even though they were clearly covered by the newspaper’s request.
… [UO Economics Professor Bill Harbaugh] said the UO’s redactions and delays in this case are typical of the UO.
“Most university public records offices are very business-like. They try to help you find the documents and they try to get them to you as quickly as they can,” Harbaugh said. “They don’t waste your time with trivial fees and they don’t waste your money with big fees.”
By comparison, the UO public records office is known statewide for its delays, high fees and heavy redactions, Harbaugh said.
“The University of Oregon is as prompt as molasses on a really cold day, or a really cold winter, because a day is too short a time period to capture the full extent of their slowness,” he said. “It’s best measured in geologic time.”
At a recent meeting of the University Senate, Harbaugh told UO interim President Scott Coltrane that delays in providing public information is hurting relationships at the university. “Without that transparency, you’re not going to get trust,” Harbaugh said.
Coltrane’s reply: “It’s getting better. It may not appear that way to you, but we are working on it.”
But Harbaugh said he’s seen no evidence the public records office is improving. “If anything, things are getting worse,” he said.
But don’t trust me on Johnson Hall’s obsession with secrecy – read what the RG has to say about how they had to go to the District Attorney to force UO to release the public records:
The Register-Guard determined that the UO failed to provide at least 20 key branding-related documents. The newspaper knew the documents existed because they were referenced in emails that the university did release.
For example, the records the UO released mentioned numerous advertising and public relations conceptual and strategic papers and presentations, including slides, Powerpoints and other documents, that 160over90 and the UO had recently developed and were at the heart of the branding initiative. But the UO failed to provide those to the newspaper, even though they were clearly covered by the newspaper’s request.
In February, The Register-Guard petitioned the Lane County District Attorney’s Office, asking it to order the UO to provide the omitted documents and undo the redactions.
In mid-March, before the District Attorney’s Office ruled, the UO suddenly provided the newspaper with many of the missing documents, and also with previously redacted documents that the UO decided should not be blacked out after all.
On March 30, the District Attorney’s Office ordered the UO to un-redact a significant number of additional documents.
In his ruling, Assistant District Attorney Spencer Gwartney said the UO could black out parts of records based on federal student confidentiality law, and on exemptions to Oregon public records law in matters of trade secrets and personal privacy.
But Gwartney said the UO erred in claiming many documents could be blacked out under state public records law’s “internal advisory communications” exemption.
Gwartney ordered the UO to disclose all 34 pages that UO lawyers had blacked out, in full or in part, under the “internal advisory communications” claim. Gwartney said the UO had failed to establish that the UO’s need for secrecy outweighed the public’s interest in openness. The UO obeyed the order.
No transparency, no trust. Unfortunately that’s now a large part of the legacy of Scott Coltrane’s brief interim presidency.