In PR, timing is everything; this time ours was bad

ks_1.jpgAnyone 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.

14 Responses to In PR, timing is everything; this time ours was bad

  1. Brittany Thoma says:

    Thank you for posting an entry on this. It needed addressed.

  2. Allison says:

    When I heard about this story last night, I knew you post something informative and put it to use in your PR classes. Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? I remember talking about that for a good part of a class. See! Students do remember your classes.

  3. Heather Bing says:

    I’m glad you commented too… I emailed that story to several family and friends when I saw it online yesterday morning. I was actually most blown away that Lefton and his wife were capable of spending $40,500 on a 23-day trip to Europe. I just returned a week ago from a 16- day excursion with my brother to 13 cities in seven different European countries, and the total cost for both of us was under $5,000. Guess we must have been slumming it!

  4. Chris Baldwin says:

    Bill,

    Nice job dissecting a story and showing how a reporter can deliver a balanced story but editing and teasing can still make someone look bad because most people don’t/won’t read the fine print. Personally, I believe Dr. Lefton is due every penny. He earned it. If someone has an issue with that, they need to talk to the trustees that developed the goals and the pay incentives.

    You’re worth every dollar of a pay increase too!

  5. Mark says:

    While I think you already addressed the meat and potatoes of the argument, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to look back into the past and see how Cartwright spent? While these expenses seem exorbiant, I wouldn’t put it past any president from a prominent university to (for example) stay in a (way too) nice hotel, or go on trips to Europe.

    Basically, I think this is an interesting story, but just because it’s happening here, now, does not mean it hasn’t happened in the past or doesn’t happen all the time. I’m really not informed on this issue, but it just seems like in today’s education system where millions of dollars are wasted, it has to be going somewhere, right?

  6. Chris Sledzik says:

    I think it’s easy to chalk this up to bad timing, but, to me, that’s just a way of saying it was uncontrollable. Couldn’t it have been handled better?

    With a little PR insight someone could have realized that a drastic pay increase coming at the expense of taxpayers might raise some eyebrows in the media. It was inevitable that a journalist was going to look deeper into the issue. A little proactive public relations thinking and additional info could have shaped a lead like this:

    President Lefton proves he’s worth every penny by working internationally with Kent State affiliates promoting the university’s focus on excellence and diversity—just a small addition to an increase in enrollment and admission seen in Lefton’s first year.

    I understand that’s probably hoping for the best, but I still feel that if Kent State had had a jump on this, the “mess” would have been much tidier.

  7. Stacy Wessels says:

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that 22% increase — but I won’t hold my breath.

  8. Alexia Harris says:

    Great entry. You’re right, it was bad timing. But a $40,000 trip to Europe is ridiculous. If it wasn’t for business, he should have come out of pocket for it (all of it).

    By the way, congratulations on your anniversary. You’ve been married to your blog for a year!

  9. sthammond says:

    Way to take a sensitive issue and make it even more interesting. Oh, and happy blog-o-ver-sary.

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    Wow. It’s great to see so many folks commenting on the issue. I guess my shameless listserv promotion didn’t hurt! While there are two sides to the story, someone at KSU was asleep at the switch. You’ve gotta question $1,800/night for hotel rooms. It’s an immediate red flag for anyone who operates on public funds.

    Another great disappointment is that our award-winning Daily Kent Stater got scooped. The student paper received the same information at exactly the same time as the ABJ, then opted not to pursue the story. Bad news judgment, to be sure. But as I tell my students, it’s the mistakes we make that deliver the greatest lessons. Make them in college where they’re less costly!

  11. Tim Roberts says:

    Late again, but had to throw my two cents in. Having dealt with executive compensation stories, my reaction is this: suck it up, play it straight, take your hits and move on. These are board decisions. PR pros, unless they are on the board, have no influence on them. Defending them vigorously makes you look like a tool.

    The BJ story was fair and balanced. There have been no follow-ups that I know of, so it looks like this is a one-time hit. I do agree that the Stater should cover this. It still can. Compare his travel to Cartwright’s or other state university CEOs. It’s all public record. Lots of good stories can be found by scrutinizing travel reports or budgets.

    I read Lefton is going on a nationwide trip for alumni visits. I assume to raise funds, as that is the chief job of a college president these days. I don’t expect him to stay at Motel 6, but I hope he will be prudent.

    Finally, as for 22 percent for faculty, Lefton’s raise was based on merit, meeting a series of metric set and measured by the board. That is how it works in corporate governance thse days. The faculty’s contract is across the board and merit is not part of it, as per the agreement. Unless you persuade your union brothers and sisters to adopt a merit system, you can expect something like a 3 percent annual raise and to chip in more for health coverage, which will eat the 3 percent. Just like us private sector folks!!!

    Really enjoy the blog,

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    Late or not, your wisdom and insights are always welcome here, Tim. I’ve been out of the firing line for quite a few years, so I welcome comments from the folks who still dodge the bullets day to day.

    Of course, my demand for a 22% increase is a sarcastic one. I suspect, as you say, we’ll be trading pay raises for health care just like the rest of the grunts in this world from now until forever. That is, in part, a failure of national leadership, but I also blame the union, in part, for not having the stomach for a work stoppage.

    As for Lefton making numbers, indeed he did, and it earned him the bonus promised by his trustees. It’s a boardroom decision. Let’s shut up and move on.

    But , but , but…without faculty support, Lefton doesn’t meet any of his metrics, with the possible exception of higher admission numbers, which is easy to accomplish by simply lowering the standard. Now THERE’S a story I’d like to see the Stater follow. How did we get an admissions boost (however slight) when most other schools were declining? Was it hardnosed, earnest recruiting (I hope so), or did we lower the bar to “y’all come”? Inquiring minds want to know!

  13. Michelle says:

    Please keep writing and sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. I’ve just recently started reading your blogs. It’s so refreshing to read truth. You’ve done a great job at backing up what you’ve wrote. I read the Akron beacon Journal. I commend you for your integrity. I admire how you respond back with respect, to those who “shoot back at you.”
    Maybe, you ought to think about having your own ‘Larry King Live” show. You certainly have the credentials. And, America despritely needs some educated guidance.

    God Bless you!!

  14. […] I caught mention of the president’s $40,000 European excursion last summer. And twice I heard the name Yank Heisler, a $150,000-a-year “special […]

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