UC Davis 'Apologizes' For The Reputation Management Industry's Hyperbole And Your Misunderstanding

from the mmmm-no dept

A week or so back, we had some fun discussing the 2011 incident in which campus police for UC Davis calmly pepper-sprayed the shit out of some seated students, because young people are scary. We did this specifically because news had just come out that the school had paid nearly $200k to a reputation/SEO management company to try to obscure this bit of history from these here internets. Because the Streisand Effect is a cold-hearted mistress, instead of burying the incident, the internet began discussing it yet again, all while having some fun pointing out that UC Davis’ efforts were equal parts misguided and cynical.

As the backlash grew, it was only a matter of time before embattled UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi publicly apologized for the whole thing. She has now done so. Let’s take a look at how she did.

“The university’s identity has been shaken by a series of highly publicized missteps,” Katehi said in a statement released late Monday amid calls for her resignation. “Some were my own doing. All occurred under my watch. For that, I sincerely apologize.”

This, as any good PR professional will tell you, is a good start. As a leader at the school, Katehi takes full responsibility for these transgressions, even for things that may have only occurred under her watch, but also including some that she personally enacted herself. Then she apologizes directly for them. Nicely done. The only way you could possibly screw this apology up now would be to-

But because of the importance of philanthropy to UC Davis and the need to make sure those searching for information about the university get a complete picture, we needed to do a better job telling the world about the university’s extraordinary achievements. So we did what any organization in a similar situation would do ? we sought to strengthen our communications capabilities. We invested in key staff. We added $800,000 to our Strategic Communications budget to cover increased costs for health care and retirement benefits. Another $800,000 was allocated for new and existing employees to work on social media, web development, videography and news. Finally, we also increased the Strategic Communications budget — still comparatively modest for a university of our size and reach — with a one-time, $1 million allocation for a statewide advertising campaign highlighting our contributions to California agriculture.

-fall into the PR quagmire in which you respond to a controversy by trying to divert attention from it to all of the good things you do. I like to call this the “trains run on time” tactic, the fictional retort of those supporting Mussolini’s fascist government. Sure Mussolini was a dictator who locked up or murdered dissidents, expunged freedom from his country, and allied himself with Adolph Hitler. But his trains ran on time! Or, sure we tried to cover up the pepper-spraying of non-violent students through a sneaky attempt at SEO manipulation and gaming search engine results. But look at what we did for California agriculture! This tactic rarely works, because the positives are not related to the negatives, making the whole thing an attempt at excuse-making and evasion.

But I’m sure her statement will get better from here-

In hindsight, we should have been more careful in reviewing some of the more unrealistic and ridiculous scope-of-work claims in the written proposals of our outside vendors. What might be accepted industry hyperbole in the private public relations world falls far beneath the high standards of a public institution of higher learning.

Damn, we had it wrong this entire time. UC Davis didn’t screw up! The reputation management industry did, with it’s hyperbolic claims that the school bought into and paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars for. So, in other words, that apology at the top is really sort of unnecessary, because it’s these companies’ fault, not UC Davis’. The taking of responsibility has been obliterated by later doing the opposite and shifting blame onto the vendor. Not good.

But it’s not like she lied or anyth-

But I assure you: none of our communications efforts were intended — or attempted — to erase online content or rewrite history. At UC Davis, we live with the lessons of 2011 every day. We are a better university because of it. And we succeeded in providing the public with a fuller understanding of everything UC Davis has to offer.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, that’s exactly what the school was attempting to do. Not by deleting content, but by burying it beneath links to all that agricultural goodness and whatnot. Hell, the vendor’s own proposal, which UC Davis signed up for, states that its work will include:

“-online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, David and Chancellor Katehi have received-“


“-to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results-“

Eradication and erase are close enough that I’m comfortable in calling the Madam Chancellor a complete liar. And that this statement wasn’t so much an apology as it was a dedicated effort at digging the hole UC Davis currently finds itself in even deeper. Stop digging, Chancellor. For the love of the universe, just stop.

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Comments on “UC Davis 'Apologizes' For The Reputation Management Industry's Hyperbole And Your Misunderstanding”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Power…. say it with me…. causes a form of brain damage.

When the pepper spray initially happened and then she threw the officers under the bus I remember thinking she probably told them to fix it and do whatever it takes, and then she sacrificed them all when they did exactly what she wanted but didn’t get the desired result.

She thought she could reform the schools image and in particular hers, she is unfit for the job. She is more concerned with how she is perceived than if she is actually doing a good job. She has spared no expense to save her reputation, its time she leave before she spends again.

Itch (user link) says:

Less sympathy...

In reading up about this incident and all, I came across this video of what happened leading up the spraying.


A couple of things that I realized from it, watching in context.

1) The cops warned everyone that got sprayed. You can see one person nope right on out of there. Most media reports play it up like this was all unplanned.

2) I full support the right for people to protest. And I full accept, and expect that when I protest if breaking the law I’m going to suffer consequences. Be that arrest or dispersal. In watching the video, the cops were trying to lead away people that they had placed under arrest. The cops were then encircled. The protesters seemed to let cops come and go, but refused to let the people arrested leave.

What is the proper response? The cops were arresting (and removing) people. That decision was made, not being changed. Protesters said no. If the cops started to arrest more people that were sitting around them, then human nature would encourage people to take their place. Then more people get arrested than originally planned, and had resources to handle. Look @ the number of cops during “wild street” parties. It’s maintain a superiority in numbers so the cops aren’t out numbered by those in cuffs.

My whole wandering point? There is a significant misunderstanding on the part of the public on this. I don’t blame UC Davis for trying to manage this. They got swarmed by the opposing narrative the first time around. So this is just more of a lateral play. Doubt it will succeed either, but I understand the motives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Less sympathy...

There was no reason to use high powered pepper spray at point blank range. Pure police brutality right there. The pepper spray used was a MK-9 (versus the MK-4 normally carried) and should have been used from at the very least six feet away, not a couple of feet. It’s meant for mass crowd dispersal, not lovingly personalized applications like we saw in 2011.

Dave says:

Re: Less sympathy...

Wow, thanks for that video, it presents a much different story than what most probably know.
While the UC Davis attempt at correcting the narrative is understandable because what’s out there ISN’T ACCURATE, the way they went about it was amateur night. If they had just attempted to provide full context I think reason would have had a chance…

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Less sympathy...

“1) The cops warned everyone that got sprayed. You can see one person nope right on out of there. Most media reports play it up like this was all unplanned.”

So, a disproportionately violent response against a non-violent target is OK so long as you tell them you’ll do it first? Do you honestly think the timing was the only problem people had?

Scratch says:

Re: Less sympathy...Try No Sympathy

from me. My friend was a student at UCD and was on campus for that event and his tale totally changed my opinion on what happened. I agree with you Itch, re: the students.

I disagree when it comes to understanding the motives of trying to scrub it off the internet. It was stupid and has proven to be a PR miscalculation.

There’s no sympathy from me for any of the parties involved, they’re all scum in my eyes.

Dingledore the Flabberghaster says:

Re: Less sympathy...

I’m appalled by the apparent acceptance of the use of pepper spray. Pepper spray is a weapon, albeit one that is typically used in defense.

Were the police under attack? Were they being threatened? Did it appear that the crowd was suddenly going to riot? No, no, and no.

Irrespective of the type of pepper spray, it’s use against peaceful protesters – illegally located or not, warned or not – is not reasonable or proportionate.

Informed says:

Re: Re: Less sympathy...

No they weren’t under attack. Not really threatened either (only verbally abused). Did it appear to them that the crowd was suddenly going to riot? Yes, they thought things were spiraling out of control. In fact, they did what they were asked to do (get the tents off campus by confronting protestors in the middle of the quad at 3pm so that the chemical Katehi can stop worrying about the virtue of the young girls when they come out of bars that Friday night). But were stuck in the quad because they didn’t bring enough transportation to deal with the people they arrested. Waiting in full gear in broad daylight on the quad, listening to screaming kids, getting blocked by sitting kids…pretty uncomfortable. Might be time to use some force to get out of the situation…

Informed says:

Re: Re: Less sympathy...

They did have a radio. They did call the Davis cops who did arrive at the scene before the spraying. I wonder what that conversation was like…
“Campus cop-Um, can you help us get these perps out?”
“City cop-What, is this why you got me all the way here? You want me to shoot these coeds or shout at them? I don’t carry rubber bullets… or a bullhorn.”
“Campus cop-Never mind, I will spray em.”
Also, they had x2 the normal number of cops they had on campus at the event as they brought cops from the other UC system campuses for the operation.

Joe Random says:

Re: Less sympathy...

These students were not a danger to anyone. Why should the cost of a peaceful protest that blocked access to a building for less than an hour be the “courtesy” of a warning that a can full of military-grade pepper spray is about to be unloaded into your face? Does this promote civil discourse? Also try to remember that these were young people whose parents were no doubt paying an arm and a leg for the care of UC Davis.

Anonymous Coward says:

But I assure you: none of our communications efforts were intended — or attempted — to erase online content or rewrite history. At UC Davis, we live with the lessons of 2011 every day. We are a better university because of it. And we succeeded in providing the public with a fuller understanding of everything UC Davis has to offer.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, that’s exactly what the school was attempting to do. Not by deleting content, but by burying it beneath links to all that agricultural goodness and whatnot.

Aren’t you the one who always reminds us that Google is not the Internet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“the only reference to google on this article is in your comment..”

The article has this quote from a document…

“to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results”

Although they are not quoted here, the next two words in that document are literally “on Google”.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Make it didn't happen

Make it didn’t happen–paraphrased in this case as:

The problem isn’t that one of our paid jack-boot thugs pepper-sprayed a bunch of unruly students, the problem is that it makes us look bad. A little public relations whitewash and we can make it didn’t happen.

This is the standard response of organizations today. Why be good citizens when it’s so much more profitable to commit fraud, crush opposition, and/or sell dangerous products that kill people? All you need is a little reputation management to make people forget it happened, and you can right on being a bad citizen again and again and again.

This is the worst part of the “right to forget” laws. They aren’t about individuals, not really: they’re about organizations wiping out the memory of their wrongdoings; making them didn’t happen.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Make it didn't happen

It’s old school thinking, a hold over from the past. This sort of thing has always gone on and they used to get away with it. They have not yet caught on that their bullshit is no longer easily hidden by coverups, misdirection and propaganda campaigns – and they are not happy about it. This is why they are trying to censor mass communication. We can not allow a well informed public as it is not in the best interests of the benevolent overlords.

Michael Adams (profile) says:

The Greek Fascist is Still at UCD?

The Greek Fascist Linda “Chemical” Katehi is still at UCD and will probably remain, even if it takes storm troopers.

Linda Katehi has a history of allowing fascist thugs access to campuses. UC Davis chancellor Katehi had a role in abolition of university asylum in Greece. There are links between the suppression of dissent at UC Davis and similar events in Greece from the days of the military junta to the present and Katehi was there for all three.

Among the legacies of the Greek uprising against the Military Junta was a university asylum law that restricted the ability of police to enter university campuses. University asylum was abolished a few months before the UCD incident. It was part of a process aimed at suppressing anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece. The abolition law was based on the recommendations of an expert committee, which reported a few months before the U.C. Davis incident.

Here’s a translation of the key recommendations of the report:

University campuses are unsafe. While the [Greek] Constitution permits the university leadership to protect campuses from elements inciting political instability, Rectors have shown themselves unwilling to exercise these rights and fulfill their responsibilities, and to take the decisions needed in order to guarantee the safety of the faculty, staff, and students. As a result, the university administration and teaching staff have not proven themselves good stewards of the facilities with which society has entrusted them.

The politicizing of universities – and in particular, of students – represents participation in the political process that exceeds the bounds of logic. This contributes to the rapid deterioration of tertiary education./

Among the authors of this report – Chancellor Chemical Linda Katehi, UC Davis. And, to add to the irony, Katehi was a student at Athens Polytechnic in 1973.

There are more outrages with this woman. Here are the links, read them and weep. She has to be a .01%er favorite to still be there.

How UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi Brought Oppression Back To Greece’s Universities

Athens Polytechnic comes to UC Davis

The roots of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying

*1. The fall of the Greek junta, only a year after Pinochet’s coup in Chile was, in retrospect, a historic turning point, after which rule by generals became steadily less common.

Scote (profile) says:

What does "take full responsibility" mean?

I love it when executives claim to “take full responsibility” when their organization is *caught* doing something unethical or criminal. Are they going to resign? Reimburse the company or the public for misused funds? Go to jail for criminal activity? Nope! For executives, to “take full responsibility” for a screw up means continuing to collect their giant pay check and suffer no significant consequences whatsoever.

It’s time we hold executives to task when they utter the phrase “take full responsibility” and actually make them do so. Katehi needs to pony up the cash she wasted.

Itch says:

Less sympathy (part 2)

First, nope not a shill just someone who did some digging and doesn’t trust the media for either side.

But notice my specific word choices here. I do have sympathy for the protesters. Like comment #13 said, it was high grade pepper spray. Everything I’ve seen shows that this ‘personal’ piece of equipment isn’t allowed by the local force because of the strength of the product and how it normally is used isn’t right for situations that campus cops face. Even in this type of situation.

So from my POV, fire his ass, UC Davis rightfully deserves to make the payments out to the students. The money the cop got for emotional distress is shady to me, but argue back and forth on in my mind.

Comment #14: Line of protesters. Yep, but this line encircled the cops. There wasn’t a way for the cops to retreat. If you want to force confrontation, don’t provide people a ways out.

Comment #18/19: Nice run to the extremes. Nuance must mean nothing to either one of you.

Comment #21: I’ll read those articles. Always willing to learn more. I do, and have, changed my mind on many occasions.

Everyone else, lets talk this out. Cops have arrested a sub-set of protesters, and then surrounded by the larger group. Note specifically the word surrounded. The cops job, and determination, is to move the sub-set to cars to be taken and processed. To leave the area. And they are being prevented from doing their job. We talk here on Techdirt all the time about how Photographers get harassed by cops by “interfering”, which is true and total BS. 99% of the time they are back out of the way. It’s a cop’s concern that the camera turns into a gun and they get shot in the back. (Conditioned to think that way, not that it’s true).

Here, at UC Davis, the cops are trying to leave and are being interfered with. They aren’t going to let the people that they’ve detained go. The protesters decided that the subset with the cops isn’t going to leave. Seriously, how do those that disagree w/ me propose for the cops resolve the solution. Talk and convince each one personally? Arrest each person? Look back at what I said previously. Cops won’t detain more people than they can manage (probly like 2 to 1 or something). How do the cops leave the area w/ the people? The protesters have already demonstrated a willingness to prevent this from happening. If cops step over the line while trying to carry the detainees, they don’t know if or how the remaining protesters will respond.

I get that alot of this sounds like I’m anti-protesters. I’m not. I think that it’s a vital part of democracy and freedom of speech. What people miss is that part of the protest is going thru the system. Think about the number of times MLK and others “willingly” went to jail. They knew what they were protesting, and knew/accepted the consequences at that time. I forget which protest I’ve seen but everyone showed up, demonstrated, and then went dead weight as the cops came in to arrest them. That was it. No-one in the group tried to prevent the cops from doing their job, they all knew the consequences of their actions, and knew exclusively what their rights were. And in my mind, that is right. You are protesting a certain set of actions/beliefs/policies. You are putting skin in the game instead of being a bystander. And as the numbers group that are being “punished”, gets the public outcry to change the system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Less sympathy (part 2)

The protesters have already demonstrated a willingness to prevent this from happening. If cops step over the line while trying to carry the detainees, they don’t know if or how the remaining protesters will respond.

So they responded to a threat that existed only within the confines of their pointy heads? What if, say, I feel a cop is detaining me against my will – am I free to use violence as well because I’m scared of what might happen? Given that the police are likely armed and I’m not, am I not more justified in my fear than them?

And I find it hard to believe that if the cops found themselves encircled, that they simply wouldn’t ask for…wait for it, wait for it…backup! What a novel idea, no?

Or is UC Davis set off in some wasteland, where the dipshits who decided to use pepper spray were the only police in a 50-mile radius?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Less sympathy (part 2)

Comment #18/19: Nice run to the extremes. Nuance must mean nothing to either one of you.

Nuance? .. there is nothing subtle about any of this.
Pepper spray today … bullets tomorrow, it’s the same mentality behind the trigger and the same rationalizations attempting to down play the public outrage. Exactly why are you pro-policestate?

Informed says:

Re: Less sympathy (part 2)

Since you are ready to learn more, try reading this itch:

It is very long, but very informative. Couple of things that make it more Greek tragedy than police brutality:
1. Yes, you are right, once the police ended up ‘encircled’ they had very few options to get out of there with the people they arrested. Indeed, the crowd were trying to negotiate with/intimidate the police to let go of the people they arrested, which they (rightfully) thought should not have been arrested for peaceful protest.
2. They got ‘encircled’ because they didn’t come prepared to arrest people (probably because they thought their job was just to take down the tents–although they did expect resistance and brought riot gear and all). Main mistake: They didn’t bring enough vehicles to transport people to station so they had to stick around waiting, giving time to the crowd to grow/confront them. All downhill after that.
3. As the report says, objectively they were fine throughout the event but boy subjectively at various points they were all pretty worried about the size of the crowd. Are they lying/exaggerating to make themselves look good and/or does riot gear limit your field of view and people screaming ‘from Davis to Greece, fuck police’, ‘let them go and we will let you go’ effect your judgment?
4. Pike probably just didn’t know how to use the larger pepper spray properly, as they weren’t trained in its use. Seems that was the least lethal thing he could think of to get his way. Talking was not going to work.
5. Very poor judgment also by Katehi and team as well as the police chief leading to the event; quite clueless. They were in a hurry to dismantle the tents because (1) it was Friday and in a few hours weekend partying/outsiders at tents mingling could lead to all sorts of headaches, (2) they thought it was mostly outsiders occupying the campus–and ignored contradictory information when it was brought to them, (3) they just couldn’t think of an alternative way to manage the situation…like putting a few cops near the tents when bars closed…and used a blunt instrument.

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