Kent State in the headlines — again! What’s your advice?

foot.jpgIt’s fortunate the state of Ohio doesn’t allow firearms on college campuses. Otherwise, I worry that the administration at Kent State might shoot themselves in the foot. They’ve done so in the figurative sense three times this semester, and it hurts us all.

Since September, three management errors have landed KSU in the headlines, and the impact on long-term reputation is beginning to show. In each case, the university has ducked serious questions from the media and issued statements that rationalize their missteps. As a faculty member AND a financial backer of Kent State, I’m cringing, and so are many of our alumni and friends.

As I said, three stories have bitten us in the backside. The most recent broke yesterday when Akron Beacon Journal reported that Ed Mahon, ksuseal.jpgVP of information services, received a nifty little bonus in addition to a 10% raise this year. The bonus was $88,000 earmarked to pay Mahon’s tuition for a doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School.

The Case program in “business leadership” is one our own College of Business can’t duplicate. We focus on “teaching” business, Weatherhead focuses on “doing” business. So the Case doctorate is clearly a better fit for Mahon.

What doesn’t fit is asking Ohio’s taxpayers foot the bill. Sure, in private business it’s common practice to pay for graduate education of employees. In state-supported education, at least in Ohio, it is not. Carol Biliczky, the ABJ’s education reporter, did her homework and found only a few isolated cases in which state universities covered such costs. None came anywhere close to $88,000.

A university spokesperson sent the reporter, via email, the administration’s rationale for Mahon’s perk. The statement said it is “common and useful to managers from entry level to senior levels of management. As it turns out, professional development training such as this is common in the workforce.”

Nice try, but this isn’t a standard practice for state-supported universities in Ohio. The payment is exorbitant by any standard and a long way from the “best practices” we should all be trying to emulate.

Today’s follow-up editorial headlined “Free ride at Kent State, Another embarrassing moment in university spending,” is another publicity disaster. And it gives local opinion leaders, donors and alumni one more reason to raise one more eyebrow in the direction of Kent, Ohio.

The editorial also reminds readers of KSU’s last big financial miscue involving President’s Lefton’s $40,000 European trip last summer. I wrote about that here.

Of course, none of these headlines supports the brand image KSU is seeking under it’s new slogan, “Excellence in Action.” Rather, they are the antithesis of it.

Our story isn’t complete without a mention of that third miscue, the one involving the recall of Dr. Julio Assad Pino from his 6-week research leave in the Middle East.

Seems that Dr. Pino’s trip was never properly approved by the higher ups, so he was forced to return 4 weeks early. His boss, the chair of the history department, lost that post and was returned to the faculty. It was yet another high-profile story that grew directly from a small error in management compounded by an even bigger one.

Aside: The Pino story might not have made page one were it not for the professor’s own high profile. The Kent State faithful may remember that Pino became the whipping boy of rightwing bloggers and the topic of numerous MSM stories last spring. Yeah, I wrote about that, too, here and here.

In defense of the PR pros at KSU, I’ll ask a simple question: “What’s a communicator to do?” There’s no defense for bad decisions. Crisis management 101 dictates that you apologize, admit your errors, then explain how you’re going to fix them. You don’t try to manage the news coverage.

What KSU is doing instead is rationalizing its mistakes and hiding in the bunker. Meanwhile, the university’s key stakeholders are likely having one of those WTF moments. And as they do, they may be rethinking their relationship with the institution.

I don’t enjoy using this space to criticize the people who provide me the greatest job on earth — a job that allows me to impact the lives of so many young people.

But those “kids” are precisely why I’m writing. Students in my PR classes leave Kent State for careers that will span 40, or perhaps even 50 years. During those careers, they’ll make plenty of mistakes. We all do. So to the extent to which my lessons can help them avoid those mistakes, I’m obligated to present them.

If you study the literature of crisis or reputation management, you learn that at least 3 of 4 crises are of our own making. With a little anticipation, and a little advance introspection, bad decisions are easy to avoid.

David Finn wrote about it way back in 1959, calling it the “page one” rule. When making decisions, Finn said, act as though a reporter from the local newspaper is in the room recording your every word and questioning your every move. If that makes you uncomfortable, rethink the decision. Because of Ohio’s open-records law, a reporter IS in the room, at least virtually.

A colleague this morning asked me what counsel I might offer the administration today if asked. I’m gonna think about that a while, and I hope you will, too.

There is a place for your ideas below.

17 Responses to Kent State in the headlines — again! What’s your advice?

  1. Rob Jewell says:

    First a disclaimer: Bill and I are friends and colleagues at Kent State. I teach public relations courses and supervise students who work in a student-run public relations firm as part of Kent State’s University Communications and Marketing organization. I believe that President Lefton’s credibility is on the line. And, if asked, I would offer him and others in senior administrative positions this advice. Say something to Kent State staff, faculty and students — and say it quickly. President Lefton should admit to making some mistakes. He should emphasize his commitment to working together with staff, faculty and students to make Kent State an excellent university. And he should promise to communicate with everyone involved more personally and effectively. Will this make everything right? No. But hey, it’s a start.

  2. tim roberts says:

    Does the university administration realize there is a growing image problem? I hope so – if not, nothing can be done. In any organization, you need buy in from the top to make change. I hope the adminsitration realizes that while these two instances of questionable spending may indeed be isolated, they do reflect poorly on the university as stewards of students’ and taxpayers’ dollars. And perception is reality.

    If there is buy in, Rob Jewell said it best about communication. President Lefton’s weekly email is a nice touch, but it would be more beneficial if it addressed pressing issues. It also might be better read if it was more meaty. Although now is not the time, come Janaury or February, President Lefton should sit down for an interview with the BJ reporter and be prepared to answer questions. She certainly isn’t doing slam jobs; she is being a solid reporter.

    What does he say? Well, the European trip and the tuition benefit could be viewed as investments in the university’s future IF a tangible result can be shown. I’m not an insider, but I have not heard of any direct benefit the university has received from the trip, in terms of donations, partnerships or joint research. But something HAD to come out of the trip. Investing in employees is always good practice, even though $88K is a bit pricey for one employee. (As for the Pino’incident, this may actually have helped the university with some constituences, such as conservatives in state government, but I would advise Lefton to shy away from discussing a personnel issue).

    Finally, two constituences that need special attention are students and state government – the major funding sources for the university. Establishing and maintaining two-way communications with these stakeholders is vital – and must be done at all times and not just when things get sticky.

    And, in the spirit of political incorrectness, Merry Christmas Bill!

  3. deauna hale says:

    i’m not sure where to begin on this one as find myself now in a career where clandestine behavior is the way business gets conducted. i have fond memories of the prkent program, however being outside of the greater cleveland area, i do not keep up with the events happening at the university anymore. so i’ll speak hypothetically.

    as a professional, it is hard to believe that divulging information and not accepting responsibility for the error to the university and greater akron/kent communities and the taxpayers is the most viable option for the university’s public relations team. whoever is in charge clearly did not graduate from the prkent program. years later, i still remember that it’s MUCH better to admit mistake than try to spin the mistake with smoke and mirrors.

    as an alumna, this incident would not make me reconsider supporting the university. as i wrote earlier, i have nothing but fond memories of my kent experience and still believe it is the best pr program east of california. hands down.

    as a state budget analyst, i am disheartened that the bonus wasn’t questioned by the board of regents. in light of an approaching recession and changes in state revenue forecasts, such an egregious act shouldn’t have made it to mr. mahon.

  4. Scott Baughman, Class of '82 says:

    Where to start?

    There are plenty of issues (opportunities) here to address.

    First and foremost – Bill’s offered some pretty good, basic advice on crisis communications 101. Even in the face of a mistake – people are pretty quick to forgive/forget if you admit you were wrong, fix the mistake and say you won’t let it happen again.

    #1 – Admit better decisions could have been made.

    #2 – Fix the error. Options? Adjust the tuition support to a more reasonable level…consistent with similar (generally accepted) polices at other fine institutions (or, KSU better be ready for all the additional requests for tuition support for others. The policy better be fair for all – or it could appear to be favoritism).

    #3 – Sitting down with a reporter to address this issue might help (provided the right “fixes” have been made and the appropriate messaging is used).

    However, I concerned there is a bigger issue here of administration Vs Faculty Vs Staff – and how the students (KSU’s customers) are viewing this evolving situation. There should be “one voice – one message” for KSU and all three of these groups should be on the same page.

    If a “fix” is going to be made – it has to be quick and public…then move on.

    The head of a company once asked his PR counsel why the company was receiving bad press coverage. The PR counsel said if you don’t like bad news, stop making bad news for the media to report.

    It takes a long time and considerable effort to establish and maintain a good reputation – but only one moment of inattention to damage it.

    The best first step for maintaining a good reputation is to have consistent policies and practices that are fair for all. It’s pretty hard to go wrong when you do the right thing to begin with.

  5. Rob Jewell says:

    There are a number of good points throughout these posts that the Kent State administration should consider. Among them, Scott Baughman writes: “Fix the error. Options? Adjust the tuition support to a more reasonable level…” That to me seems like a good approach. And I’ll offer two other possible options for dealing with the tuition issue. Ed Mahon could step up and decline the assistance. Lester Lefton could rescind the offer. But if the administration is inclined to take some action, how long does it have to do something? Or has the window of opportunity already closed? I also agree with the idea of meeting with reporters, including those with the Daily Kent Stater. But I wouldn’t advise holding those interviews any time soon — unless the administration has something specific and positive to say. Bill’s right. Actions speak louder than words. One of the problems now as I see it is that there are no actions and no words. That’s a shame. Kent State deserves to be viewed favorably. And I say this as both a faculty member and an alum — 1970 and 1979.

  6. tim roberts says:

    Two more points.

    1. I may be in the minority but a crisis communications approach is inappropriate here. In my opinion, this is NOT a pr crisis. Nobody is in danger, nothing genuinely tragic has occurred, the university isn’t facing a merger or shutdown. What we have are two local stories in the last four months – neither picked up by the wires – and an editorial about questionable spending. That doesn’t constitutes a crisis in my eyes and overreacting to it will only amplify the issue.

    The best public relations plan is to, first and foremost, ensure that Lefton realizes that his reputation is taking a hit, particularly internally, and that the unions will use this stuff at contract time. (that is the PR head’s job). Then, use that opportunity to persuade him to implement a more open communication plan with students and other key constituencies, especially those that fund the university.

    2. Rob Jewell is correct about the Stater, a great way to reach students. Also, like in my previous post, the BJ has to be invited in and, if he really wants to make a splash, The Plain Dealer should be considered because of its reach and reputation.

  7. Stephanie Langguth says:

    The Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication is a leader in the field, with PR Kent an outstanding component. PR Kent and its professors teach their students the correct, responsible and best long-term way of handling a poor PR situation. Should Kent State University be positioning itself in the “do as I say, not as I do” role? No. To the University administration responsible for this, I say: Teach your students by example. Teach proper actions and reactions by example. Lead by example.

    Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you handle them that show your true character, and it’s also how you will be remembered.

  8. Judy Gombita says:

    Bill, what are estimated costs associated with studying for a doctorate at KSU’s school of business? Presumably Ed Mahon would automatically receive free or heavily subsidized education as a KSU staff member.

    That being the case, if he chose to go elsewhere (no matter what the underlying rationale), as a journalist, student or member of the tax-paying public I’d be inclined towards saying that KSU’s “obligations” to him extend only as far as the costs associated with KSU’s own offerings. I’d want the president and other administrators of KSU to make such policy clear to all staff applicants for post-secondary degrees; namely, if you choose to study elsewhere, be prepared to make up the difference.

    I’m with Rob Jewell in thinking that it behooves Mahon to accept at least some of the responsibility for the unanticipated furor/reputation management issue over his personal choice of schools, perceived slight to KSU’s academic reputation and seemingly cavalier attitude about spending tax dollars. If not a complete withdrawal of his request for funding, (as stated above) at a minimum he should offer to personally absorb the difference in costs between the two business schools.

    To me that would be the closest KSU and Mahon could come to a win-win resolution of this thorny issue. But, then again, I’m not an Ohio journalist or resident.

  9. […] Sledzik has the details on his Tough Sledding blog. I won’t rehash it here. But it’s fair to say the story was not favorable to the […]

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    It’s about time I jump in here, although I think you’ve all been carrying the conversation without me.

    There’s some disagreement as to whether or not this qualifies as a “crisis.” Tim is correct in saying nothing tragic has occurred, and no one is in imminent danger. But the series of events at Kent State has generated enough negative publicity to create a disruption that poses a very real threat to the organization and its operations. By my definition, that’s a crisis — or soon will be if the pattern continues.

    Whether the administration chooses to recognize it as a crisis is another matter. They may believe the damage to be slight, given that the story hasn’t gone beyond the Akron Beacon Journal — yet!

    But I think we all agree on the need to for quick action to show that the organization recognizes the problem and is attempting to set things right. Judy offers an excellent suggestion — that Mr. Mahon accept only an amount of tuition support equivalent to the cost of a business PhD at Kent State. That would show good stewardship of taxpayer funds, and be a compromise that most could accept. Win-Win? I believe it’s too late for that, but we could save face a bit while setting a fresh tone for the future.

    And thank you, Scott, for reminding us of the need for “one voice, one message,” and for the need to adjust behavior to make us a bit less newsworthy. They don’t report bad news if you don’t make it — one of the simple truths of media relations. We in PR don’t have a magic wand, and we can’t make it go away.

    I should mention that the damage was amplified with Chip Bok’s cartoon on the Sunday editorial page. I can’t find it on the ABJ website. When I do, I’ll be sure to add a link.

  11. Stacy Wessels says:

    Lefton isn’t the first KSU president to plant his head firmly in the sand. Carol Cartwright tried to re-brand the university as “Kent” because “Kent State” was too messy. The KSU administration, like so many others, needs to realize it is not immune to criticism or investigative media coverage.

  12. Judy Gombita says:

    Hey Bill, I said “the closest KSU and Mahon could come to a win-win resolution of this thorny issue.” By that I meant the university’s continuing commitment to funding Mahon’s further studies, in significant part, if not entirely. Regarding KSU and its public reputation management, it would seem that staff education policies could bear a reexamination and (in particular) the results communicated to all concerned. No matter what the outcome of the exercise (changes or maintenance of the status quo), the rationale should be detailed.

    My long-time online pal Andrew Arnold and I recently had an e-discussion about the Ketchum/USC 2007 Media Usage Survey news release (that I also forwarded to you), Media Myths & Realities—A Public of One. Andy commented, “I especially like the bit about providing “content” and “context”—one of my hobby horses. Mind you, I think I’d argue with their definitions of Word of Mouth campaigns. That’s always what I thought PR did through third parties.” Ergo, going forward KSU could and should provide the context, in addition to the content, of policies to third parties, such as local media and the student and publics “of one.”

  13. abster says:

    Bill, nice post. I feel like the university has been burning some bridges lately with local reporters. I read Rob’s post about the topic (note: I was very excited to see he started a blog– and i’m sure you had nothing to do with that-haha) and I think the university PR department needs to evaluate their communication efforts with reporters. It’s all about building relationships, and I think this time an e-mail response to such a controversial subject was not appropriate. KSU needs to meet problems head on– or find the best way to correct them without attracting such negative media attention. Who’s to say what would have happened with the article if some face-to-face communication occurred and the school was defended by a spokesperson??

  14. […] Bill Sledzik wrote about in some detail and received a number of excellent comments about on his ToughSledding blog. Read Bill’s essay, if you haven’t already. Besides, Bill has tenure. I […]

  15. First of all, I would like to thank Bill for his courage to stand up for what is right.
    This article of how KSU has mismanaged money is most likely the answer to an issue that has me very angry. I became very ill in April of 2005. After spending a week in the hospital I had to withdraw from Lakeland Community College.( Due to a medical reason they offered to refund the money. )I couldn’t wait to return to school. With over 35 credit hours I’m anxious to finish. One year later, the summer of 2006 I enrolled in a college math class at the local KSU in Ashtabula, Ohio. The class started on a Tuesday. When I began to do the homework I realized that the illness had unfortunately affected my cognitive skills. There was no way I could continue the class. Thursday, the second day of class, I realized I had to withdraw. It was a very emotional time for me to accept that six months earlier I had a 3.0 GPA. And now the secretary is explaining to me about a program for “slow learners.” But, HERE is the REAL PROBLEM! I’m NOT just ANGRY for myself but, for all the OTHERS that KSU has WRONGLY taking MONEY from. It was my second day of class for me and I was not able to have my money refunded. Classes started on Tuesday so, Wednesday was the deadline. I was told I would have to write to “the board” and give them a medical note. A little extreme I thought but, I did it. I received a letter back from KSU that they would not be refunding my money. “Because, I knew about my medical condition.” It doesn’t take to much thinking to discover I wouldn’t have paid $500.00 if I knew I wasn’t able to do the class. At the time I was so depressed about the learning problem that I didn’t have it in me to dispute KSU’s reason for denying my refund. I signed up again the next spring. I felt I was doing much better. I paid $225.08. Unfortunately, I was only able to go from Jan.13 – Feb.27, 2006. I didn’t expect a refund. I also did not expect to have to pay for a full semester $500.00 more! I have talked to others that have been in the same situation. One girl had to withdraw because she was diagnosed with CANCER! YES, she still had to pay. I understand guidelines are needed but, there are circumstantial reasons beyond one’s control. KSU has everything to GAIN with there strict guidelines. They have WRONGLY taking THOUSANDS of dollars from students. I apologize for my grammatical errors I’ve spent the entire day working on this serious situation. I will also add that I was hung up on by the main campus. I am determined to do everything I can do to STOP this.
    Please email me @ shellm34@yahoo.com if you have been in the same situation

  16. […] a post about the president’s high-priced European tour last summer, and another about the high-priced benefits for a top executive. Our local media have noticed management’s spending habits, too, and said so in a year-end […]

  17. […] times I heard colleagues mention Ed Mahon’s $88,000 doctoral degree, an unprecedented perk for an executive at any level of this or any other […]

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