If you have been following the story of UW-Oshkosh and how its University Marketing and Communications department has forced student journalists to route all interview requests through its staff, the story continues later today. Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, Editor-In-Chief Cory Sparks, UW-Oshkosh’s head of marketing and communications Peggy Breister and several other interested parties are meeting this morning to discuss this situation and try to figure out how best to move forward. If hear how that meeting turns out, I’ll make sure to let you all know.
If you haven’t been following this saga over the past couple days, you’ll want to start here, with the post in which Breister, outlines how her department deals with student media. Breister was responding to a report from FIRE that said UMC was forcing students to go through her office for ALL interview requests to UWO personnel.
Breister denied that the school had a policy like that or that she ever vetted any questions from the student newspaper, The Advance-Titan, before they were given to potential sources.
The next post, linked here, shows that Breister lied about both of those things and that former staffers were willing to go on the record to detail how stringently Breister and her department tried to control information at UWO.
If you have the inclination, you can help with this situation by reaching out to the following people:
This is Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. He’s the head of UWO and a really all-around decent guy.
He prizes student press freedom and he was exceptionally helpful to me when I was advising the paper. I also know that he’s listening to people, as several folks have emailed him already and told me he was nice enough to respond to them.
His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please feel free to email him and explain to him why the approach UMC is taking here is problematic to you. Also, feel free to explain what you think the “best practices” should be for the relationship between UMC and student and/or all media.
This is Peggy Breister. She is the head of UMC at UWO and the person who wrote the emails I screen-shotted above.
Her email is: email@example.com
Please feel free to email her your thoughts about her approach to UMC, student media and other similar topics. Also, if you are displeased by her actions regarding the Advance-Titan, please feel free to respectfully explain how you think things should be handled in the future.
This is Cory Sparks. He is the current editor of the Advance-Titan and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my students.
I’ve done my best to keep him out of the danger zone on any stupid thing I write on the blog and not ask him to comment on any of this, lest there be questions about entangling alliances.
That said, he and the A-T crew have been dealing with a lot of garbage these days because of this situation, so please feel free to email the kids at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please let them know you’re supportive of their rights and that you are behind them.
In the mean time, I’m going to offer an unsolicited proposal for how best to make the UMC/A-T situation work so that both sides can get some work done and peacefully coexist.
Let’s start on the UMC side:
OPEN THE GATE, STOP THE GATEKEEPING: The first crucial thing to do is to unbottleneck the portal of information on the campus by eliminating UMC as a “must-stop shop” for all sources. Journalists, as noted in the earlier posts and basically every introductory reporting text ever written, work hard to build trust with sources and to create relationships with them. This whole approach of gatekeeping that provides only the sources UMC wants with ONLY the questions they vet in ONLY the timeline they see fit doesn’t jibe with the free and unfettered press elements of our Constitutional rights.
UMC can start by basically saying to the A-T, and any other journalist who wants to hear it, “You do you. If you want to go find sources on your own, contact people via whatever methods work for you both and work the field like the professionals you are, that’s cool by us. Go get ’em.” That’ll be a good first step to establishing trust and transparency.
OFFER SERVICES ON BOTH ENDS: The true goal of public relations practitioners is to facilitate relationships. That’s where the UMC should both start and stop, if the folks there want to be really successful. This means that the UMC folks should be there when a journalist needs an expert in the stock market or the situation in Ukraine or the history of UWO. When a journalist needs help, UMC has the ability to be an excellent matchmaker.
The same is true when sources want their stories told. Pitching stories to outside media outlets or developing content for publication on the university’s website can draw a lot of good attention for the students, faculty, staff and other folk at the university. That’s a great use of time, energy and skills to make UWO shine. Just knowing what some of my intro reporting kids are finding on the campus has given me some great insights as to some really cool things happening here that I’m sure folks would like to report in their media outlets.
PROVIDE TRAINING FOR POTENTIAL SOURCES: Here are two things I’ve heard from some weak UMC folks over the years as rationale behind their desire to control information or limit sources:
- “If we let journalists wander around on campus, they might report on things that make the university look bad.”
- “If we let anyone talk to journalists, who knows what those people will say?”
OK, well, for the first one, if you don’t want people to report things that make the university look bad, maybe fix the stuff that’s out there you fear people finding out about. This approach is akin to me locking the basement door because I’m afraid we’ll discover mold down there. The mold is either there or not, but it sure as hell isn’t going away just because we don’t see it.
Second, if you are really worried that people will have awkward conversations with journalists, try to help them feel more comfortable about talking to journalists. Again, avoiding something doesn’t tend to make things better.
Have a program with some professional folks (read: like our PR faculty) and give the UWO community the opportunity to get used to talking to other people about what’s going on. It’s not about keeping a lid on anything but about making it so these people are not putting everyone into a jam if they talk about stuff they don’t know about, get worried about saying the wrong thing (which usually leads to saying the wrong thing) or getting fired for talking to the press. The goal here is education so the right people can talk to reporters and deliver the most accurate message possible for the audience of the media outlets.
TAKE THE STAFF OFF THE LEASH: A couple things that bothered me in the emails I posted yesterday and in the conversations I had with former staffers was the idea that only a few people were strategically allowed to talk to the A-T on any given story. The folks who work, serve and learn here should all have the right to speak as they see fit. Of course, if they’re told “Don’t talk to the media,” they’re going to fear what could happen to them, even without an explicit penalty or threat.
(When my father or mother said, “Do something-or-other OR ELSE!” I was at least smart enough to know I didn’t want to know what the “or else” was. I have a feeling that’s where a lot of folks find themselves on this campus when told not to talk to the student journalists.)
Make a blanket statement to the campus community that they are free to talk to whomever they want without a papal blessing from UMC. If they choose to do so, there will be no harm and no foul that will befall them. If they feel uncomfortable about doing so, they can either get some advice from UMC, training through that future training program proposed above or beg off without concern. It’s their choice.
If the chancellor, the provost, the police chief or other “top dog” folk who are constantly running from pillar to post need UMC to help play matchmaker, that’s something that could be easily established and would make sense if need be. However, eliminate the blanket policy of nobody gets to talk to anybody without UMC’s say-so.
LEARN WHAT HILLS YOU ACTUALLY ARE WILLING TO DIE ON: The emails and the stories tell me that UMC personnel had no compunction about complaining vociferously about stories, headlines and other such things. Anyone has the right to complain about anything, really, as that’s also part of the free expression approach we are pushing on this blog.
That said, learn to let a few things go. Good grief, this is worse than when my mother-in-law was arguing with me over the importance of salted butter.
If there are true fact errors (The paper spells the chancellor’s name wrong, a professor is said to be “murdered” instead of “honored,” etc.), absolutely feel free to reach out with a “Hey, I just saw this and you might want to fix it.” Explain that you have no say over content whatsoever (because the law dictates that you have no say over content whatsoever) but that you wanted to let people know what’s up.
If it’s more nuanced, debatable, limited in scope or otherwise not that damned important, it’s worth understanding that every hill isn’t worth dying on. The more you complain about every little thing, the less likely people are to listen to you at all.
Let’s look at the A-T side:
ACCEPT THE RESPONSIBILITY: Perhaps one of the best experiences I ever had was when we took a group of student journalists to the Minnesota Twins game as part of a media convention. They were given a daily press pass and told by the PR staff there: “Batting practice starts at 4. You’re just like every other journalist here. Act accordingly.”
In a few cases, the students screwed up here and there with protocol and such, but for the most part, they made a reasonably good accounting of themselves. That’s what happens when you get responsibility and take it seriously, something I know the A-T staff (and every other student-media staff I’ve hung around with) understands.
Still, few things were more upsetting to my editors and fellow advisers over the years than when a staffer tripped over their own ego and fell on their ass, embarrassing the rest of us along with them. Editors realized that the more freedom they had to go get stuff, the more they had to be careful in training and reporter selection. Not every Johnny or Janie Freshman with an attitude and two clips from the Beaver County High School Tidbit could be sent to interview the chancellor or cover a shooting.
Knowing what I know about the A-T folks I’ve met, they know this and are more than capable of establishing this as a credo in the newsroom.
WORK WITH UMC: Working “with” someone means that there is shared understanding of goals, roles and equality. It’s two professionals, making a go of a relationship. This is what PR is all about and it’s what we teach here in the department.
When I worked cops and courts, I often met with a public information officer. We’d chat about things he thought were interesting and I’d ask questions about stories I had upcoming. If I needed something, I knew I could trust that person because we had a relationship that didn’t so much mirror the one in “Mommie Dearest.” I also worked with PIOs at the sheriff’s office, fire department and more in this same way.
The relationship between the paper and the PIOs wasn’t adversarial. It wasn’t a case of “us versus them.” It was the idea that, for the most part, we pretty much could agree that we wanted accurate information getting to the public in a way that was relevant, useful and interesting. Sure, we occasionally disagreed on how that was all supposed to work, but that’s what often happens in a relationship, so we worked it out.
ESTABLISH GROUND RULES: The key to working with UMC comes down understanding what the ground rules each side expects the other to play by. That’s a conversation the paper needs to start so there is no confusion about how this relationship is going to function.
One PR person at another university told me she would always answer my questions accurately and honestly. Then, she flat-out lied to me and when I caught her lying to me, her response was, “Well, in that situation, I decided it wasn’t something you should know.” That has the same internal logic as Amy telling me she’s never going to cheat on me and when I catch her in the act, she tells me, “Well, we’ve never had a pool boy before…”
Another person told me, “I’ll never lie to you, but I’m not going to tell you everything, either. That said, if you ask the right questions, I’ll always answer them honestly.” In other words, he wasn’t going to come out and tell me, “Hey, did you know the provost is running an ultimate bum-shock fight club in the basement of Academic Hall with homeless guys each weekend?” That said, if I knew enough of what was going on to ask him about that situation, he was going to tell me that it was happening. I got used to that.
The point is, you need to know how honest someone is going to be with you, and if what I’ve seen over the past couple days is an indication of where we stand, there’s going to need to be some serious bridge building on the UMC side of things. At this point, if Breister walked in to my office drenched to the bone and told me it was raining outside, I’d probably call at least six people and take a walk outdoors myself before believing it.
I have no idea if any of this helps, but I can’t imagine implementing any of it would make things any worse at this point.
In any case, we’re all pulling for you folks to get this thing done well. Have a great meeting.