UNC messaging made bad news worse


UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt listens to UNC President Tom Ross as he responds to the report released by Ken Wainstein’s investigation into academic fraud at the University of Carolina North during a press conference Wednesday October 22, 2014 at the Kenan-Flagler School School of Business in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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In 2013, I attended a reception for Joel Curran, the newly hired Vice Chancellor for Communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Then-Chancellor Carol Folt created the post and called on Curran, a UNC graduate and accomplished corporate public relations professional, amid negative coverage linked to the scandal of the academic athletics of the university.

One thing I remember from the event is Curran asking me and others, “What should I do? It was flattering, refreshing and humble and proof of the new man’s PR sense. I remember the question more than my answer, but I like to think that I told him to tell the truth and the rest would be done by itself.

Curran took a more complicated approach. He focused on messaging. He expanded the university’s communications staff, oversaw requests for public documents, bolstered the UNC’s profile on social media, and advised Folt, and now Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, on what to say – or not to say – all for a nice salary of $ 359,000. Indeed, Curran was so busy that in 2017 Folt brought Clayton Somers, the former chief of staff of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Tim Moore, will be vice chancellor of public affairs at $ 342,000 a year.

All of this channeling, monitoring and analysis coincided with perhaps the worst publicity in UNC-CH history. The academic and athletic scandal ended with a controversial NCAA ruling that wrongdoing was indeed done, but that the offenses were outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA. Then there was the fiasco of the removal of the Confederate Silent Sam statue, Folt’s resignation, the troubled opening and closing of the campus last fall as COVID infections skyrocketed and the outcry over the aborted hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Money doesn’t buy happiness or, it seems, positive cover. But money can buy money. Curran’s ability to sell the university’s academic and research achievements has helped UNC-CH raise $ 3.9 billion to meet its fundraising goal of $ 4.25 billion.

This exorbitant amount probably caught the attention of the leaders of Notre-Dame, who announced last week that Curran will be the university’s new vice-president for public affairs and communications. When a university can raise billions in the midst of a blizzard of bad news, someone is stepping up the positive.

Today, UNC-CH is looking for a new person to shape the way they communicate. Whoever accepts the job probably won’t ask me the same question as Curran, but here’s an answer anyway.

Remember what UNC-CH administrators usually forget: they work for the public.

Respond quickly to requests for public records. It’s not just polite, it’s the law.

Don’t see everything through the prism of public relations. Delaying information, resisting disclosures, denying problems and insisting that all is well only made the bad news in Chapel Hill worse.

At the level of the public. Deb Aikat, a longtime faculty member of the UNC-CH School of Journalism, told me that during the Silent Sam controversy, the university “was not performing well. It was basically about removing information instead of sharing information.

Level with faculty. Denying the problems – such as the spread of COVID on campus – is a cheerful speech that the faculty calls “toxic positive.” Mimi Chapman, president of the UNC-CH faculty, told me: “It feels like if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. We are only talking about the good things, rather than naming the real problem. “

Chapman recognized that running a large research university can be “like a big business,” but added that a university should value collaboration and be open about its decisions. “It’s not a corporate culture and in some ways communications need to reflect that. Instead, she said, the faculty felt like “a riding to rotate rather than a partner.”

This is a longer answer than the one I gave to Curran eight years ago. But unfortunately for the image of the university – and its image makers – there has been a lot more to say since then.

Associate Opinion Writer Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett @ news observer.com

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