How (Not) to Hide a Scandal

There’s a fine line between a marketing campaign and a cover-up. The attempt by UC Davis to get its pepper spray incident off the top of Google searches is a case in point.

April 20, 2016

Google “University of California, Davis.” What do you see? Who controls what you see?

Until last week, here’s what you wouldn’t see: images of a police officer, back in 2011, pepper spraying a group of student protesters. The students are assembled peacefully, sitting in a line on the ground, heads ducked.

Here’s the video of the incident, which racked up over a million views in the days after it was posted:

Once the video started circulating, the university tried to control the fallout. Over the last five years, it paid contractors at least $175,000 to scrub references to the controversy from the Internet.

But last week, the PR campaign backfired. On the afternoon of April 14, the top search result for “UC Davis” was the headline from The Sacramento Bee, the paper that broke the story through open-records requests: “UC Davis spent thousands to scrub pepper-spray references from Internet.”

Now, lawmakers and students are calling for Chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation. They see the spending as an ethical breach: in the midst of budget cuts, how can the university use public funds to smooth over a scandal?

“As an institution, our goal is to educate students about the past,” said Brandon Buchanan, a sociology graduate student and participant in the student movement #firekatehi. “This incident reveals that the university has made it its goal to try to forget the past.”

Most colleges have marketing budgets, and many spend time refining their brands, recruiting new students and trying to boost their rankings. But in the public eye, there’s a fine line between a PR campaign and a cover-up, between emphasizing the positive and hiding the negative. While many recognize the value in spending money to promote a college or university’s message, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to bury a controversy can seem disingenuous, if not outright exploitative.

“This movement toward Internet management is happening at the same time that they were saying there was no money,” Buchanan said. “They're willing to spent $175,000 when they're cutting money everywhere else.”

The New First Impression

For PR experts, crisis management is about redemption. Mistakes last forever on the Internet, and the right marketing campaign can offer a way forward.

“People can be unfairly stained by damaging press for years after the event,” Darius Fisher, president of the online reputation management company Status Labs, said in an email. “Without the means to tell their side of the story, they’re stuck in an unfortunate situation where the world continues to shape its opinion based on old news."

Fisher would know; his company worked with former University of Missouri professor Melissa Click, who became the subject of her own national controversy earlier this year. But while Click is an everyday person turned public-shaming target, UC Davis is a public institution, which uses public funds, dealing with one of the biggest controversies it’s faced in recent years.

For UC Davis, reputation management wouldn’t be enough, Fisher said. Even so, he believes there’s nothing inherently wrong with paying for these kinds of services -- at least in less troubling circumstances. After all, bad press harms a university’s ability to attract new applicants.

“The first page of Google search results is the new first impression,” he said. “It’s in a university’s best interest to manage how it appears online.”

Nobody can change Google’s search results -- not directly -- but anyone can try to game the algorithm. In its proposal, Nevins & Associates, one of the companies UC Davis hired, promised to create a “surge of content with positive sentiment and off-topic subject matter.”

The goal was to flood the Internet: as more content about a particular subject appears online, any negative content will -- hopefully -- get lost in the mix.

“Communicating the value of UC Davis is an essential element of our campus’s education, research and larger public service mission,” the university wrote in a statement after The Sacramento Bee’s investigation broke. “Increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect.” In a video message Monday, Katehi said that the contracts’ language misrepresented her intentions, and that she had never wanted to erase the pepper spray incident from the university’s history.

For its supporters, UC Davis was just engaging in another kind of PR. After a crisis, they argue, doesn’t it make sense to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative?

Elizabeth Johnson, CEO of market research firm Simpson Scarborough, says the Internet is the primary way people get information about UC Davis -- and if the university’s marketing department wasn’t working on its search engine results, it wouldn’t be following best practices.

“When people search on ‘General Motors,’ General Motors does not want them to land on a page about recalls,” she said. “And when people search ‘UC Davis,’ UC Davis does not want them to land on a page about pepper spray.”

Authentic Marketing

For Katehi’s supporters, there’s nothing malicious about marketing. But where, then, did the university go wrong? What makes marketing honest, and what makes it deceptive? Where is the line, and when did Katehi cross it?

“A PR campaign generally is about highlighting good things that we’ve done,” Buchanan said. “This is about erasing what we as students have experienced on campus.”

Bill Tyson, president of Morrison and Tyson Communications, said there’s nothing wrong with promoting a university’s mission. But after a controversy, spamming the Internet with hollow content, created just to bury a negative story, will seem disingenuous.

“The word ‘scrubbing’ doesn’t seem to set well,” he said. “In dealing with any crisis, we find that the response needs to be authentic.”

Perhaps, some experts argue, an authentic response means focusing on the problem rather than the fallout from the problem. If search results are a symptom of a greater problem, could fixing the problem cause the search results to recalibrate on their own?

“If they had waited for that recalibration to naturally occur, it would feel more genuine,” said Teresa Parrot, founder of TVP Communications. “Those results would have naturally rebalanced.”

It’s an optimistic idea -- that search engine results naturally represent the world. That the Internet is a place where, as Vox’s Aja Romano wrote, “having power doesn't necessarily mean you can drown out the voices of the many.”

But even though UC Davis’s plan backfired, its critics feel misled. They see the marketing campaign as a way to ignore the problem rather than solve it, and they feel that their university isn’t listening to them.

“Although we’re given the illusion that we have all the information, that’s not always the case,” Buchanan said. “If we spend enough money, we can shape our Internet persona to whatever we’d like it to be -- and I think that is disingenuous.”


Back to Top