On April 25, 2012, the official University communications organ--Penn State Live--announced the hiring of two firms, "Edelman and La Torre Communications to immediately support the University in corporate communications, media relations and stakeholder engagement." (Penn State retains Edelman and La Torre Communications, Penn State Live, April 25, 2012).
(From Michael Sebastian, Penn State taps Edelman to ‘rebuild trust’ and improve media relations, PR Daily, April 26, 2012)
"The Penn State Board of Trustees previously hired Ketchum to provide crisis PR counsel in the immediate aftermath of the scandal becoming public. That engagement has since ended." (Penn State Calls In Edelman And La Torre For Crisis Comeback, Holmes Report, April 25, 2012). PR Daily described the new hires this way: "Penn State University has hired two public relations firms, among them Edelman, to help the university rebuild trust and improve its media relations efforts. The move comes in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal last fall. Edelman and La Torres Communications, a Harrisburg, Penn.-based firm, will support the school in upcoming litigation related to the Sandusky crisis and work to foster greater transparency among Penn State Stakeholders. ". (Michael Sebastian, Penn State taps Edelman to ‘rebuild trust’ and improve media relations, PR Daily, April 26, 2012).
Edelman describes itself as "the world’s largest public relations firm, with 63 offices and more than 4,200 employees worldwide, as well as affiliates in more than 30 cities." (From O'Dwyer's Public Relations Firms Database, Edelman). La Torre has experience working with non-profit corporations and has connections to the Pennsylvania political establishment..
The hiring was effectuated as part of a plan, quite reasonable, to better manage disclosure and image to outside constituencies. That faculty was first notified along with strangers to the University at the time of the Penn State Live announcement might also be understandable as the hiring of a public relations firm might be understood as a purely administrative task, though one would hope a task in this instance in which the board of trustees was involved.
Edelman and La Torres Communications, a Harrisburg, Penn.-based firm, will support the school in upcoming litigation related to the Sandusky crisis and work to foster greater transparency among Penn State Stakeholders.
. . . . .
Due to the university’s poor crisis communications last year, the news that Sandusky, the former longtime assistant football coach at Penn State, had allegedly raped young boys spiraled from a human crisis to a reputational one for the institution. The handling was so messy that even PR professors and students at the school criticized the administration’s communications. (From Michael Sebastian, Penn State taps Edelman to ‘rebuild trust’ and improve media relations, PR Daily, April 26, 2012)
Indeed, the University President was quoted as supporting the retention of Edelman and La Torres by invoking his earlier promise of greater transparency and openness.
"Earlier this year, I announced five promises to guide Penn State in recovery from our recent crisis and rebuild trust with the Penn State community," said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. "Retaining these communications firms puts us more firmly on the path toward accountability, openness and preserving our reputation as one of the world’s leading research universities." (Penn State retains Edelman and La Torre Communications, Penn State Live, April 25, 2012)
Yet the announcement from Penn State was curious, and especially curious because it appears that in addition to its obligations to manage image outward, the firm was also hired to manage communication with inside stakeholders as well. "The primary objective of this work is to ensure broader and more transparent communications with key Penn State stakeholders, including current and prospective students, alumni, faculty and staff, parents, local communities, and state and national media." (Penn State retains Edelman and La Torre Communications, Penn State Live, April 25, 2012).
It could not have been the intention of the University to hire well known firms for the purpose of communicating with its students, staff and faculty, stakeholders with with it has traditionally communicated directly and without the mediating efforts of outsiders. And yet, without any prior communication to the faculty, it appears that the administration has intended that very thing. But that could have been what the University administration meant. At least one can hope that there was no such intent. For the moment, however, it appears that, without notice to the faculty, a form of outsiders has been hired to manage the communication of the university with its faculty and others.
This poses an interesting issue of transparency within a university. Is it necessary for a university administration to hire an outside firm to advise it on the management of its communication with inside stakeholders who share governance responsibilities? To interpose an outsider between stakeholders with shared governance responsibilities suggests something other than a collaborative relationship. When that interposition is inserted between stakeholders in an asymmetric power arrangement, as is the case between administration and faculty, it suggests that an administration views faculty as a body that it manages but with which it does not engage. That is hardly transparency. It insulates the communicator from accountability by shielding its communication with others, though it might be better to suggest that the communication is reformed and detached from the speaker, packaged and organized for consumption by targeted audiences. While that might well be a laudable approach for thoughtful communication with outsiders, the purpose of which is to sensitively distribute information, it eviscerates the participatory potential of communication within an institution. And so, even though the University appears to say that they will manage their communication with faculty, students and staff through this media company, they could have meant it that way. But what way they meant it remains a mystery.
Yet it is possible to suggest that Edelman, specifically, could play a role in reworking relations between administrative officials and faculty governance organs. Edelman's Financial and Investor Relations group notes that :
We combine the financial and media expertise - and senior level client service -- of a boutique with the resources and global reach of the world's largest independent public relations firm. We create and protect shareholder value through improved communications with investors, analysts and other influential market participants. Our 100+ professionals worldwide have backgrounds in law, investment banking, securities research, marketing, branding, journalism and government. They bring a wealth of first-hand experience and an unmatched depth of expertise to the most complex capital market problems worldwide.
Our practice provides clients from all industries with the following services:
Corporate Governance Consulting - Established in consultation with Former SEC Chairman Richard C. Breeden that specializes in helping companies assess the strength of their corporate governance practices in accounting decisions, disclosure policies, financial reporting, ethical standards, internal controls, and issues relating to board structure, membership and performance evaluation. We work with clients to communicate their governance policies and track records to the financial press, regulatory agencies and major investors. (From Edelman, Expertise, practioces, Financial and investor relations).
More importantly, Edelman's corporate group boasts, "Edelman's Corporate practice both protects and strengthens a company's relationships with -- and reputation among -- its key constituencies to increase shareholder value, engage employees, deepen customer loyalty, and align government and public interests. We've partnered with UPS for nearly 16 years to build its reputation internationally and establish its leadership position as the world's largest express carrier and package delivery company. Most recently, we helped The Boeing Company announce a major re-organization, which involved thousands of jobs and the relocation of their corporate headquarters to Chicago. " (Edelman, Expertise, Practices, Corporate). And thus, the Penn State Live Statement moves from clearly miscommunication to perhaps something else.
In any cased, it is to be hoped that the appropriate person might at some point clarify what we can hope is a miscommunication. One can also hope that this correction might lead to greater engagement in the management of communication among university stakeholders.