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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The UC Davis public relations disaster


2011 PR campaign actually draws more negative attention to pepper-spray incident

According to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee, UC Davis spent at least $175,000 on consultants to improve its online reputation after the infamous pepper-spray incident on campus in November 2011.

In a desperate effort to save the tarnished image of the university and Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi, the projects focused on minimizing negative search engine results to better represent the ‘good’ aspects of UC Davis.

In a campus-wide email sent on April 15, UC Davis Provost Ralph J. Hexter claims that it is impossible to eliminate stories from the Internet. However, as a part of its public relations campaign, the university issued a higher number of positive press releases and articles. This purposely diluted the Internet of rhetoric regarding the university’s pepper-spraying and calls for Katehi’s resignation.

Sure, you can’t actually eliminate stories from the Internet. But, with enough money, you can definitely make sure people have to dig deep to find them.

The Editorial Board understands that managing public relations is important, especially after a storm of negative media, and hiring third-party help is often critical to ensuring success. But, it is also important to remember that the pepper-spraying incident is known as one of the worst actions of police brutality on a college campus.

So, instead of covering up mistakes in a futile attempt to make the public forget about what happened, why not funnel efforts into rebuilding the university’s image by making stronger decisions in the future? If the administration truly believed in the importance of free speech and protest, they would not have spent thousands of university dollars to hide behind their mistakes.  

An effective PR response to the pepper-spray incident would have done a better job of acknowledging mistakes publicly, by arranging town hall meetings to maintain transparency and putting funds towards new university-sponsored programs promoting student voice.

Rather than trying to change public opinion by actively working to fix campus problems and listen to student concerns, UC Davis administrators decided to use private funds (that could have been used to better campus life) to weaken opposition and boost our university’s image.  

UC Davis is a great university for a lot of reasons, but our achievements are overshadowed when our administration makes shady decisions. We call upon the Chancellor’s office to take an active approach to future campus conflict. A vague Frequently Asked Questions webpage is not enough.


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