Lavish spending is now a part of Kent State’s “brand”

Excellence in Action? Fugitaboutit!

images1.jpgKent State has a new branding statement for 2008: “Show us the money — and we’ll spend it!” At least that’s the message I get from this morning’s Akron Beacon Journal editorial page. KSU’s lavish spending made the ABJ’s Top Five “most galling” decisions of 2007. The complete text of the commentary appears at the end of this post.

images-1.jpgThe headline, “King Lester doles out our treasury,” positions Kent State as some sort of fiefdom. Management behavior supports that impression and the ABJ’s editorial (and previous coverage) reinforces the “brand.”

I loathe the term “branding,” as it’s one more result of allowing our “evil twins” in marketing to hijack PR’s most important cargo. Back in the day, we simply called it “reputation,” and the savvy PR professional knew that reputation grew not from our client’s advertising or marketing strategies but from the client’s performance and its character.

Perhaps KSU’s administration should revisit that lesson.

If you follow this blog, you know I’ve criticized the Kent State brass in the past (here and here). But don’t misread my motives. While I’m a member of the AAUP, I’m not some union rabble-rouser. I’m a team guy — really I am.

But I’m also a guy who teaches the theory and the practice of public relations, and I’m weary of using my own employer as a “how-not-to” case study. But you can’t ignore the headlines, can you? What you need to do is stop making those headlines and correct the errant policies that lead to them.

My friend and colleague, Rob Jewell, has already posted his thoughts on this matter. But if you read only one post on Rob’s fine new blog, read the one he wrote last week — the one that captures the essence of the PR business. Rob titled the post: Public relations and character, and while he never mentions Kent State in that post, the lesson sure applies.

Since the Beacon Journal hasn’t yet posted its editorials for 12/28/07 (go figure), I’ve transcribed the text for you here:

King Lester doles out our treasury

Lester Lefton hasn’t quite figured out that he is not the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, or even a private university. The president of Kent State ran into turbulence when word surfaced of travel bills exceeding $40,000 during a European excursion. (Kent has programs abroad.)

Did Lefton learn his lesson about taking care of public money, not to mention avoiding messes that diminish the profile of higher education in the Statehouse? Evidently not.

If the travel bill didn’t stick in the public throat, Lefton later agreed to pay $88,000 in tuition for a Kent administrator (no pauper, on a salary of $206,140) seeking a doctoral degree at Case Western Reserve University. All those students accumulating substantial debt to get their diplomas had reason to wonder: If the administrator lacks available cash, why not advise him to borrow the money?

They may even draw the connection: Gee, $88,000? That equivalent to the annual tuition for 11 students.

(From the Akron Beacon Journal, 12/28/2007)


14 Responses to Lavish spending is now a part of Kent State’s “brand”

  1. Rob Jewell says:


    Maybe the two of us are the only ones bothered by this situation at Kent State. I don’t believe that’s the case. But if so, it’s a shame because both of us have seen through the years other organizations in this kind of situation, often without the most positive result.

    And maybe we’re still talking about this because we do care about Kent State for many of the reasons you mention in your essay and that I talked about on my blog this morning. I’ll add another. I’m proud to tell friends and former business associates that I am part of what I believe is one of the best journalism and public relations programs in the country. That’s a credit to you, Michele Ewing, Jeanette Drake, Jeff Fruit and a host of others. But at some level it’s almost embarrassing to train our students in the strategies and tactics that help make them excellent public relations pros right after graduation — while watching our employer take almost the opposite approach outside the classroom. Good grief.

    I know your son believes that blogging is a form of shouting in an echo chamber. I hope that’s not true. We’ll see. But in the meantime, for all the PRKent grads and others who read your blog, maybe the Kent State administration would benefit from hearing your views and advice, directly or via this blog.


  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    They had best hope we’re the only two who care about this, Rob. But I doubt that’s the case.

    I’m betting the ABJ editorial is already on Chancellor Fingerhut’s desk. And I’d be surprised if it doesn’t find its way to the members of the Board of Regents by next week. Well, wait. We’re talking Ohio government here, so give them until March. We all know that higher education has precious few supporters in the Statehouse. This won’t help.

    Alumni? It’s not like KSU is going to tell them about this mess. But word has a way of filtering out. At first people are surprised and dismayed. Then they feel betrayed. This is why I preach — in every class I teach — that winning the trust of your constituents is the bottom line in this business. You do it with those magic ingredients like character, responsibility and ethics. But you wrote about that last week, didn’t you?

    I think there’s still time to pull this one out. I — along with all of my students — will be watching closely. And I’ll be hoping most other folks aren’t.

  3. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, you may be a dear friend and respected colleague, but I really have to take issue with your “evil twin” jihad. You said:
    I loathe the term “branding,” as it’s one more result of allowing our “evil twins” in marketing to hijack PR’s most important cargo. Back in the day, we simply called it “reputation,” and the savvy PR professional knew that reputation grew not from our client’s advertising or marketing strategies but from the client’s performance and its character.
    Rather than “evil twin,” advertising is PR’s older brother. Long before Bernays was concocting cancer-stick campaigns for women (and creating a career for himself) based on the now-discredited fantasies of his Uncle Sigmund, J. Walter Thompson had developed the first ad agency. Go back to the late 19th century and you’ll find the roots of modern advertising. PR came later.

    More important, advertising has a prior claim, both historically and logically, to being guardians of the client’s reputation — or “brand.” (“Brand” is really a better term. People have reputations; companies have brands). If you don’t believe me, check out “The Penalty of Leadership” by Theodore MacManus. An ad written to counter Packard’s attack on the brand image MacManus had so carefully created — through advertising — for Cadillac, it ran only once on January 2, 1915. It’s been reproduced, by Cadillac and others, tens of thousands of times since.

    Below is one of many links to the text of the ad — which was an all-copy ad. The transcription has some typos. so just google “The Penalty of Leadership” for more sources.

    So advertising didn’t “hijack PR’s most important cargo.” We invented it.

    Think about Nike. Does a certain brand image — built almost entirely on a three-word tag line from Wieden & Kennedy — come to mind? Sorry, but that’s advertising, not PR. PR gets called when Asian sweatshops threaten to sully the brand created by advertising.

    So the KSU brand is in a similar fix — it takes only a few missteps by upper management to undo what was an increasingly positive brand image. PR can help fix that a bit, but only if management listens.

    Good luck with that.

  4. Bill Huey says:

    That’s a very cogent and well-argued comment by Blair Boone, and it deserves some further examination. Can universities have “brands?” Yes and no. Yes, because a university brand implies a promise—a certain standard of quality, scholarship, stewardship of funds, etc. No–or not really–because a university brand is almost invariably a product of its reputation. Universities without reputations that also match the brand attributes they have in mind are generally unsuccessful in building a brand. While brand isn’t the same as reputation, they are more of a piece at institutions such as universities than in business, where companies with excellent brands can have lousy reputations (e.g. Nike) and vice versa.

    As for KSU, it looks as though they are becoming yet another example of how the public gives billions of dollars annually to people who are essentially incapable of managing a moderately busy convenience store, saying, “Here, give us some of the higher education, whatever that is and however you define it.” Higher education is one of the most unreformed and unaccountable of America’s major institutions. The reasons are too complex to go into here, but academics seemed to have things arranged very much to their liking.

  5. Colin MOrris says:

    For those of you thinking (even in jest) you may be the only ones worried by or frustrated about the headlines, I speak for thousands of KSU students like myself when I say that my parents and I are grinding our teeth in our sleep a little harder these days.


  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Sorry I couldn’t get back to these comments yesterday. It was New Year’s Eve, and we were busy eating, drinking and being otherwise irresponsible. (But no driving!) Bill and Colin, I do address your comments as well.

    Blair: If I don’t respond, you may not invite me back to deer camp.
    Let me go point by point.

    On my “jihad” against marketing: I explained that a few posts back, so I won’t rehash it. But I will add that my “evil twin” moniker for marketing folks is more satire than anything else – my smart-ass way of differentiating the disciplines and to keeping PR’s focus where it should be — on reputation and relationships. Fact is, I worked most of my career in marketing support, as do 90% of my students.

    On the terms “reputation” and “branding”: I’d feel a lot better if we reserved the term “brand” to products or services – the stuff we sell. We disagree on this point a bit maybe, as I do believe organizations have reputations, and that they must be protected with greater zeal than the bottom line or the “brand.” Of course, brand and reputation are intertwined, and our differences here may be only semantic ones.

    Which came first, PR or advertising? Not sure we’ll resolve that one. I will say that Ivy Lee’s “Declaration of Principles” predates the McManus essay by seven years, and that Lee’s belief in the importance of organizational performance is more than a century old. J. Walter Thompson did launch his agency the year Lee was born, so the “modern era” of advertising does, indeed, predate the formal practice of PR by a few decades. That said, the tools of PR (never labeled as PR) have been around the U.S. since the American Revolution, and around the world even longer. Some PR historians like to say PR pros have been operating for two millennia, labeling John the Baptist the “front man” for Jesus of Nazareth. But since I live in a state where two-thirds of the residents believe the Book of Genesis belongs in science class, I’ve best leave the topic of religion.

    I like the way you differentiate “brand” and “reputation,” but I still believe organizations earn reputations by the decisions their managements make and by how they interact with ALL constituents – not just those in the marketing chain.

    Brands, as you point out, have more to do with perception, ala Nike. “Just Do It” is a brilliant branding campaign, and mixed with a half billion in celebrity endorsements, it’s built Nike into the top seller. This doesn’t change my view of Nike, as I still remember all those years the company ignored conditions in the Asian sweatshops. So I buy other brands of athletic shoes that are, I’m sure, also built in Asian sweatshops, but without the bad publicity, which, as McManus said, shines on the leader. Whataya gonna do?

    Thanks for pointing me to the McManus essay, as it’s an important part of ad history. But I’m wondering if Cadillac’s brand was built on advertising – as you say – or on performance. Advertising certainly is valuable in creating and reinforcing mystique, which is a big part of branding. But did Cadillac become the gold standard because of its ads or because of its cars? I still remember the first time I drove a Coupe de Ville back in 1970. It was performance of the car that had he saying “Niiiice.” Of course, it was the advertising, at least in part, that created my expectations.

    KSU? Yep, we’re in a fix. But I suspect the administration believes it will blow over. How else do you explain the silence?

    So I’m gonna suggest a new twist to the KSU brand. Did you know that Kent State will have more NFL players in the Pro Bowl this year and ANY other school? I read that on the Internet, so it must be true. Yep. Josh Cribbs, Antonio Gates and James Harrison will be in Hawaii for this wonderful ratings-buster of a game. And I see a branding opportunity.

    We start with a new name — “THE” Kent State University — and a new mascot, the Killer Black Squirrels. We then reposition our brand as Ohio’s top football power and bring Hall of Famer/KSU alum Jack Lambert out of retirement to be our head coach. When you have a good football team — at least in Ohio — no one cares about lavish spending elsewhere, so long as you beat Michigan.


    Bill: Thanks for chiming in. Yes, higher education has somehow avoided the reforms that long ago came to the business and nonprofit worlds. Why? I part, I think, because the larger schools are state supported, thus part of the one OTHER institution that has avoided reform — government. The tenure system is partly to blame, but I don’t want anyone to tamper with that until May 19, 2020 — my official retirement date.


    Colin: I know a good dentist who can help you with the grinding problem. You can send the bill to Dr. Lefton.

  7. prontherun says:

    I’m going to add another comment here because this is a subject that I really am interested in — but I’m not sure that I really know that much about. So here goes. I worked for 30 years in public relations, many of those years in a senior management position at BFGoodrich with responsibilities for internal and external communications and corporate advertising. Never once during that time did I consider what I was doing as being part of the company’s marketing strategy. Goodrich split corporate communications (me and my staff and outside agencies like Dix & Eaton, Edward Howard, Hill & Knowlton, Edelman and Wyse Advertising) and marketing communications (a host of others aligned directly with the business units and outside advertising agencies).

    And here’s the paragraph that gets me into trouble with people who have given this a lot more thought than I have. I equate marketing with sales and advertising. All are honorable professions — but I think inherently manipulative from a communications point of view. I equate public relations with honest, timely communications aimed at all audiences, internal and external. There is overlap, of course, with “relationship” marketing I guess a good example.

    At the end of my business career, I worked for a CEO who told me that our quarterly and year-end earnings news releases didn’t have enough “marketing” emphasis; in other words, not enough hype. No thank you sir. I’ll try to stick to an honest and accurate statement of the facts — and try to put that into context for reporters, shareholders, employees and others. Same when we had plant closings, acquisitions/divestments, changes in health care benefits, etc.

    The marketing guys were out there talking about the newest and best radial tire, landing gear system, polymer additive, whatever. They helped create and maintain the company’s many and different brands. I hope that I did something — even during tough times — to maintain and maybe even enhance the company’s reputation.

    Be kind.

    And to Colin: You and other students — and parents — need to let Dr. Lefton known very directly that you are not happy. Otherwise, nobody is home; nobody is listening. Trust me.

    Rob Jewell

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Let me echo Rob’s advice to Colin. Most often when I’m upset at any organization, I say nothing. I simply disassociate myself from and go on with my life. That isn’t an option for us, Colin. Sometimes well placed letters and phone calls encourage listening.

  9. Blair Boone says:

    To the two Bills (Sledzik and Huey), yes, brand and reputation are not completely distinct — I like the word “intertwined” one of you used. But I disagree that brands are relegated merely to products or services. Companies have brands. “Coke” and “Coca-Cola” are bona fide intellectual property protected by trademark. I recall in the 70s when, under threat of legal action and spurred by the growing popularity of that imposter Pepsi-Cola, waiters and waitresses in restaurants suddenly began correcting customers if they asked generically for a “Coke,” specifying “No, we have Pepsi.” The Coke brand is over 100 years old, and it now covers a tremendous range of flavors and varieties. It’s even withstood such management stupidity as changing tag lines every three years and, one of the all-time dumbest moves ever, “New Coke.” Now let’s face it — the folks in Atlanta have built an international icon and a real money factory by selling carbonated sugar water. Heck, they don’t even put cocaine in it anymore. It’s not the bottled and fountain drinks called Coke that convince people to buy it. It’s the brand, the company’s brand identity. And that’s a house that advertising built. So at this point the Coca-Cola company has a reputation for periodic missteps that damage their brand, but despite management’s worst efforts, they also have this unbelievably valuable brand.

    As for Cadillac, yes, MacManus’s advertising played a key role in building that brand as a symbol of luxury and power. It was Cadillac’s engineering missteps in introducing a V8 that caught fire (thus foreshadowing Caddy’s travails decades later in the 70s and 80s, especially with the Northstar V8) that allowed Packard to attack Caddy’s brand and market lead. MacManus wrote The Penalty of Leadership to protect that brand image. Since he couldn’t very well say, “Yes, our new V8 is a lemon,” he wrote about the brand. So it seems that a well-built brand can actually compensate, at least partially and temporarily, for an inferior product.

    That brand umbrella — whether it’s Coke, Cadillac, Nike, John Deere, Caterpillar, Mack — is of course built on both successful products and great advertising, but the brand also helps protect against mistakes that even great companies make occasionally.

    Bill, we won’t settle which is older (or better), advertising or PR, but if you’re going to claim that John the Baptist is the first advance man — and you can sure make a great case for that — I’ll refer you to “The Man Nobody Knows,” published in 1924 and written by Bruce Barton of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO). In it he maintains Jesus was the world’s first ad man: “He would be a national advertiser today, I am sure, as he was the great advertiser of his own day.” While that book and claim at least prove ad people have even more chutzpah than PR types, a better lesson may be that even in biblical times, PR and advertising worked hand-in-hand.

    Rob, I’m a bit puzzled what to make of your comment: “I equate marketing with sales and advertising. All are honorable professions — but I think inherently manipulative from a communications point of view. I equate public relations with honest, timely communications . . .”

    Help me out — how can I be simultaneously “honorable” and “inherently manipulative”? And exactly how did PR get to be “honest”?

    For years I’ve told Bill the difference between advertising and PR is simple. If I lie, the FTC will come after me. If you lie, you’ll get a bonus.

    The simple fact is advertising is regulated speech. I can’t make demonstrably false claims about my clients or their competitors. PR, on the other hand, merely has to avoid outright slander and libel, and some in your profession — certainly not you or Bill — but some, are amazingly adept at coming right up to that line and then maybe a little more.

    To Bill Huey, thanks for your kind words on my earlier comment. I think the point about Lefton and KSU is that as a public university, KSU is at least indirectly accountable to taxpayers, who foot part of the bill. But Lefton seems to be pulling a Bob Nardelli, who destroyed customer service at Home Depot and consequently greatly reduced shareholder value, then attempted to deny shareholders the right even to speak at the annual meeting, and finally was forced out (mostly by a revolt of institutional investors) with a $241 million payoff — after which he complained that his ouster by shareholders (these are the company’s owners, remember) was a threat to capitalism. Clearly mismanagement isn’t simply a public institution problem. It’s a huge problem in the private sector as well. But I’m getting off topic with “accountability,” so I’ll stop — and encourage Bill S. to post on that topic sometime.

    Oh, yeah — Bill, I love “The Kent State University” and the Killer Black Squirrels mascot. The Golden Flashes sounds like either a badly named sci-fi character or a female problem. Good brands are built on real attributes. Kent has black squirrels, and they’re tough. Go Black Squirrels!

  10. As ever Bill – fascinating discussion both on the brand/reputation + marketing/PR side and in respect of KSU.

    I always liked the concept that brand is about making a promise and reputation is about delivering it. A couple of thoughts on the idea of brand though – I used to work for Peugeot where the historical narrative was that the “brand” literally was the lion logo which was burnished onto its original product, steel, as a mark of quality. However, the brand could not exist before the company and only acted to evidence its reputation. I understood this to be the case with many of the early brands – such as Coca Cola and Uncle Ben’s rice – where a “brand” was created to distinguish those “named goods” from more generic or less credible ones. Today, it seems that rather than simply reinforcing a good product or company with a brand – companies create the “brand” and expect that to make lifestyle connections with consumers. Delivering on the promise doesn’t seem to count.

    On KSU – you are not alone in facing challenges with management not practising the good PR work that is evident in the PR function. This happens this side of the ocean too. I’d actually used the previous KSU approach to key messages as an example of not having to include slogans in press releases etc. Seems a shame that rather than reflecting a good “product”, the new identity or brand takes the modern approach of hype first.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Heather. Clearly KSU’s “Excellence in Action” is one of those “hype first” slogans and like so many we see, it says nothing and promises less. I am reminded of the man who owned a large evergreen nursery down the road from where I go deer hunting. His branding slogan was simply: “Sam Dible — I sell trees.” Sam died a while back, and he went to his grave knowing exactly what he was about. He was good at it, too.

    Commodity products in a more competitive environment do force us to create brands, and our friends in advertising are good at that, as the oft mentioned Nike example shows us. And what can you say about Coca-Cola — flavored fizzy sugar water that makes you fat and leads to hypertension. Yet it’s among the most revered brands in the world. I’m in awe.

    Blair makes a great point, though, in questioning Rob’s characterization of marketing and sales as both “manipulative” and “honorable.” You can’t have it both ways. But since I know both parties pretty well here, let me see if I can interpret.

    With advertisers and marketers, we know a sell message is happening, since the marketer creates the message and buys the space and the time to run it. That isn’t manipulative in my book. That’s persuasion, and along with it I expect (and accept) a bit of embellishment and puffery. But when PR folks engage in that same embellishment and puffery, it is too often masked as “objective” (as it often passes through MSM). And this is exactly why I don’t like the marketers dabbling in PR and media relations, as a more objective (dare I say “journalistic”) approach is needed. I think that’s what Rob was referring to — the story without the hype. We need more of that in PR. I will add that PR people should also rely on their brothers and sisters on the marketing side to do the advertising. It’s their expertise, not ours.

    I’ll add one more note on mismanagement at universities, since it’s a great story you might want to check out. Just when you think YOU have problems, you see someone who has it worse. Yeah, West Virginia won the Fiesta Bowl last night, but all is not well in Morgantown. This story isn’t getting much national play, but don’t be surprised if it brings down a university president. Check it out.

  12. Tim Roberts says:

    Gee, Bill, you must have been Christmas shopping when the University of Akron stole the mantle of flagrant university spending. In a Dec. 23 story in the BJ, U of A employees got a three-day paid vacation Christmas week that deprived students of ANY financial aid, admissions or other administrative help and cost them and the taxpayers what I’m sure is an ungodly amount of money. Kent was open those three days after Christmas, just like most other public and private institutions in the civilized world.

    I have a feeling that Chancellor Fingerhut will be more bothered by Akron playing Santa with tuition and taxpayer dollars, at least if he sees the volume and vociferousness of readers’ comments on the BJ website, I’d say Akron will be under much scrutiny, and the timing couldn’t be worse as the trial balloon of a merger between CSU and Akron has been floated.

    I’m now going to express my opinion quite bluntly and with all due respect. The assertions that the Mahan story was a PR crisis for Kent was wrong. It is a reputation management issue for Lefton with the BJ. If some of the hand-wringing suggestions on the first post on this issue had been taken – rescind the raise, make a public mea culpa, etc. – it would only have overblown and overamplified the issue to the point it might have been picked up elsewhere, This story never had legs,

    I will say again that you ONLY use crisis communication tools when there is a genuine crisis. Not when you get one bad story and an editorial in the local newspaper. In my experience, PR folks tend to jerk their knees at the scent of bad press. Sometimes. you gotta take your lumps – although I do not condone the timid response and emailing the BJ reporter.

    Now, back to Lefton’s reputation management issue with the BJ. I hope his pr staff has informed him of this. That is their job, even if they aren’t in the inner circle. The BJ’s editorial page is known statewide for protecting its sacred cow – First Energy – which I’m doing my ethics presentation on this semester. And it is no surprise that it has passed on editorializing on the Xmas vacation fiasco. I suspect the powers to be are quite concerned about the effects of a merger on downtown Akron, and they may be miffed that Kent will remain independent.

    Kent and Lefton may be in the BJ’s doghouse, That’s life. He should watch the spending and start spreading some good news – not only to the BJ, but to the Plain Dealer, the Dispatch and papers with good reputations and wide reaches. It’s a new year. Set editorial board meetings with the PD, the Dispatch, talk about goals and KSU’s endowment, research and enrollment successes of 2007. And do it quickly before election endorsement interviews begin.

    Kent is full of good stories. Lefton needs to start telling some of them – and not just to people who write checks to the university. Finally, he needs to be upfront when asked the tough questions.

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights, Tim. I consider you one of my MVRs (Most Valuable Readers), and I respect your opinions. Good point about the Akron U holiday giveaway. I have not followed the story at all, and was unaware that it has raised a stink on the ABJ website. It may have been a bonus for Akron U that the story broke Dec. 23, when so many of us simply weren’t paying attention to such things. It might also been seen as good employee relations to give employees an extended holiday during a very slow period, but when you do it with taxpayer money it is, well, galling.

    On the Mahon issue, I agree that we are NOT in crisis mode here, and don’t need to be. On the other hand, KSU seems to be in “ostrich” mode, as I have seen no response of any kind. Our heads are in the sand, and we communicate with media via email. Sheesh.

    As you point out, we face a reputation management problem, but it’s hard to say just how serious the problem is at this point. But if these types of stories continue to accumulate, they could lead to damage of crisis proportions. Not a crisis in the literal sense, but with many of the same effects.

    Will these negative stories pass? Maybe. But if they’re replaced with still more negative revelations, look out. We can work to tell the good stories of Kent State — as there are many to tell. But we also should be looking in our closets for the next negative story waiting to jump out and surprise us.

  14. […] top executive. Our local media have noticed management’s spending habits, too, and said so in a year-end editorial that embarrassed us […]

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