Anyone with more than two week’s experience in PR knows the importance of timing. My employer, Kent State University, is learning this lesson the hard way. As a professor of public relations, I thought I’d seize a “teachable moment” here and share the case study with you. Hey, something good oughta come of this.
Flashback 2006: Lester Lefton was named KSU president after a national search to replace the highly effective and charismatic Carol Cartwright, who retired after a 15-year run. OK, it wasn’t like replacing John Wooden at UCLA, but Cartwright left some big shoes.
Instead of a high-profile search, complete with 3-day campus visits, stakeholder meetings and speeches, the search committee brought just one candidate to campus. That candidate was Lester Lefton. His visit was a hushed affair by presidential- search standards, so it raised plenty of suspicion in the ivory tower.
That’s yesterday’s news, but it sets the tone for this week’s PR lesson.
Last week, a year into the Lefton administration, our board of trustees rewarded the president for an impressive set of accomplishments.
- an enrollment increase of 1.3% after two years of declines.
- a freshman retention increase to 72.5%.
- a record number of applicants for admission (up 12.4%).
- a 23% increase in external research funding.
If you’re a bottom-line person, Lefton’s cash bonus of $70,000 and his salary increase of another $17,500 (4.7%) may seem justified. But let’s remember that Kent is a state university supported by taxpayers. Go ahead, it’s OK to arch an eyebrow. I did, too.
The news media did their job covering the story (Link expires 9/27, email me and I’ll send.) They reported on the bonus and salary bump, along with the president’s entire compensation package: base salary, $367,500; deferred salary, $50,000; housing allowance, $50,000. Add the bonus of $70K and you get $537,500 for 2007.
Perspective. Lefton’s pay ranks third among CEOs in the state system, and it’s likely a few more will leapfrog past him by year’s end. Criticize the trustees for overspending if you’d like, but Lefton’s package isn’t out of line with the marketplace. (We can debate the whole executive pay issue, but not today.)
If the story had stopped there, we’d all rest easy. But little missteps have a way of piquing a reporter’s interest. ABJ education writer Carol Biliczky kept digging. The result was this story, which broke yesterday (9/25). The story calls Lefton out for spending $40K on a 4-week business trip to Europe and suggests a pattern of spending that many stakeholders are sure to find objectionable. The story goes downhill from there. (Note: Link expires Oct. 1. Contact me if you need it.)
Lefton shared his perspective with Biliczky, and she included his remarks in her story. But in the hard-copy of the ABJ, you see Lefton’s side of things only if you leaf to the jump page. The reporter presented Lefton’s defense in the first 6 inches of the story — more than fair. But, alas, only 4 inches of the piece made page one, thanks to the strike against GM and Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia. Remember, timing is everything — even when you don’t control it.
On page A4, you learn that Lefton paid 25% of the trip’s from his own pocket while alumni and friends picked up another 25%. Cost to taxpayers was less than half of what’s in the page-one headline.
My journalism colleagues tell me that only one in four people read the jump. If you don’t go to page A4, this is all you see:
President takes trip for KSU for $40,500
Lester Lefton also adds 2 executives to payroll
A little over one year in office, Kent State University President Lester Lefton has put his own stamp on the job. In some ways, that includes spending money.
Lefton has added two executive positions to his staff, including a new special assistant who makes $150,000 a year, and he spent nearly $40,500 on a four-week European business trip.
That included hotel accommodations of at least $1,800 a night while he and his wife, Lin- Please see KSU, A4.
Oh, yeah. About those two executives mentioned in the lead — I forgot to tell you that part. You’ll have to read the whole story for the details, but suffice it to say, the timing wasn’t so hot there, either. And I won’t try to defend an $1,800-a-night hotel room with a timing argument.
But there is a silver lining in this mess. It’s a contract year for faculty here at Kent State, so I’m certain we’ll see substantial consideration for the role we’ve played in Lefton’s recruiting and retention successes this past year. A raise and bonus proportionate to the president’s — 22% give or take — would do nicely.
And when the negotiators argue such a huge raise is preposterous, we’ll trot out the press clippings and smile.
Like I said, timing is everything. That’s why I love this business.