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PR Tips from UNC-Chapel Hill

January 10, 2013

Published here on January 9, 2013

UNC-Chapel Hill has inspired me. Known for its top-notch journalism and communication programs, the Tarheels boast a dozen Pulitzer Prize-winning graduates and former President James K. Polk.

The university’s widely revered status is dependent on its forward thinking methods, most recently evidenced in the handling of the Afri/Afam academic scandal. A good school has to practice what it preaches. I can only imagine what their PR undergrads are learning in class, but I know it’s the most cutting-edge type of thinking in the field.

I only go to N.C. State and am hardly qualified to talk about this type of thing, but I’m gonna give it my best shot to share some of their PR tips with you. Bear with me, and please excuse any misspellings.

Don’t cooperate with the media at all

Ignoring the long-standing tactic of open communication, UNC-CH refused to comment on anything during the Jim Martin investigation (more on that later). When university employee Mary Willingham’s accusations that UNC-CH knew about the academic fraud for years were sprawled across the front page of the News & Observer, I searched the article for a response from the university. I read this:

“I’m not going to talk to you about this stuff because we’ve got this thing going on with Gov. Martin, and that’s where our focus is right now, and these are the kinds of matters we’re working on,” Chancellor Holden Thorp said. “That’s all I’ve got to say about it right now.”

I teared up when I read that, because I know I’ll never make as eloquent a statement.

When you do respond to the media, be extremely vague.

When the Tylenol scandal took place in the ‘80s, Johnson & Johnson created a hotline just for the media — it was an attempt to keep everyone as informed as possible.

But that was almost three decades ago, so it must be an outdated strategy. UNC-CH progressively decided to respond to the accusations from the media through a single Op-Ed piece by the director of athletic communications. There was absolutely nothing specific in his column at all – just vague statements about academic integrity. It answered none of my questions, but hey, the “keep ‘em guessing” strategy had me continually coming back for more. Not to mention it did the same thing for the reporters!

Commission an investigation, and then refuse to give the search committee access to anything relevant. 

Thorp asked former governor Jim Martin to examine the extent of the scandal. I use the word “examine” with caution because Martin was allowed little access to anything relevant. Much of the scandal was believed to benefit athletes, yet Martin interviewed very few of those athletes, no coaches and no football players. After he received criticism about this, he responded with:

“We dug into that as far as our power allowed and reported what we found. If money was a motive, the District Attorney can find it.” Or, in plainer terms: “We weren’t allowed access to much of anything, so we’re stuck passing off the responsibility to someone else.”

The ridiculously non-investigative study did nothing to restore my trust, but hey, what do I know? I’m stuck learning the outdated method of organizational transparency.

Don’t apologize. Ever. 

I have extensively read about this issue in the paper, partly because I just enjoy the media bashing that UNC-CH is getting. And yet, I have not yet read of any kind of apology from anyone at UNC-CH – not administration, athletic staff or former staff. They are all more than happy to blame the entire scandal on two former employees who were cited as the source of the fake classes in Martin’s report – two former employees who were not interviewed by Martin.

The reputation of UNC-CH could be better if the administration simply admitted to a wrongdoing, but progressive thinking is so hard for me to understand. They don’t teach that at this redneck school.

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