After the campus unrest at MU in fall 2015, the University of Missouri System quietly hired the world’s largest private public relations firm to help craft its message and avoid perception crises.
Edelman PR, which Penn State hired after its child molestation scandal, was paid between $250,000 and $350,000 from June 2016 to July 2017 and was hired again through next June for an additional estimated $123,600.
The strategy Edelman presented was to limit media access, mostly in the form of written “pre-determined statements,” push positive stories about the university and create a strategy for all representatives to answer expected tough questions the same way.
Edelman has looked at news releases and provided feedback, proposed specific events to push positive media messages for MU and helped plan the school’s overall public relations strategy, according to the contract and documents. The firm has been helpful to MU, campus spokesman Christian Basi said.
The agreement between Edelman and the UM System was not publicly announced.
“We do not send out press releases on every consultant that we hire,” Basi said.
Edelman was mentioned during an October 2016 UM System Board of Curators meeting, Basi said, in a public presentation by Steve Knorr, the system vice president for university relations. However, the comment wasn’t noted in the meeting minutes, and the documents accompanying Knorr’s presentation were not posted.
Basi said Edelman’s hiring went through the UM System’s typical public process where bids are requested for a service. That information is available on the System website, and Basi said anyone could have known about Edelman from seeing it there or making a public records request.
The Missourian learned this from documents obtained by public records requests in July and August.
Edelman has a long list of notable clients, including institutions of higher education and Fortune 500 companies. In addition to Penn State, the firm worked with the tobacco industry in the 1980s and the Saudi Arabian government last year, according to an April 2016 Washington Post article.
In 2014, Edelman proposed a strategy of investigating dissenters of the TransCanada pipeline and then spreading unflattering findings, according to a November 2014 New York Times article.
The initial contract between the UM System and Edelman ran from July 1, 2016, to June 30 of this year for an estimated $350,000. The amount paid to Edelman was based on a breakdown of promised services and included ad hoc support capped at $100,000. No information was immediately available on how much Edelman was actually paid, but based on the initial contract, it ranged from $250,000 to $350,000.
According to the initial contract, these were the main services Edelman provided:
- A comprehensive communications manual
- Social, local and national media monitoring
- Public relations coaching for the curators, system president, system administration, chancellors and other “designees throughout the year”
- A calendar of major news events and opportunities for positive stories to be shared by MU and the system
- Overall media and public relations strategies, short and long term
- Ad hoc support as needed to deal with public relations issues or opportunities as they arose
Under the new contract, which began July 1, Edelman provides the system with branding and marketing strategies, communications training, ongoing support for small stories and “Crisis/Issues preparation.”
The contract specifies that the services do not include “support of crisis situations” or major incidents detrimental to MU and the UM System. Edelman’s ongoing support to MU and the system also does not include support that “requires immediate dedicated Edelman resources for a prolonged period of time.”
It's not unusual that the UM System would turn to a public relations agency for help to recover from a crisis, said Holly Higginbotham, an associate professor of strategic communication in the Missouri School of Journalism. "In fact, it is probably a well-advised step," she said in an email.
"The expense of restoring an organization's reputation once it has been damaged can be costly," Higginbotham wrote, "but not addressing that damage and restoring public trust can be even costlier in the long run."
A document obtained through a public records request, called “Crisis Planning Materials,” contained language written by campus or system officials that was then refined by Edelman, as well as language written by Edelman. Basi called it a “team effort.”
Edelman was periodically consulted about events that had the potential to impact the image of MU or the UM System. Examples found in the materials received through public records requests include the hiring of UM System President Mun Choi and the first anniversary of the 2015 protests by Concerned Student 1950.
In “Crisis Planning Materials,” sample answers were provided for a set of anticipated tough questions. The strategy was for everyone who spoke for MU or the system to be on the same page and promote a unified narrative. Several suggested answers in the document avoid directly addressing the questions.
Communications plans were reviewed by staff from MU and the system, as well as Edelman, Basi said.
“There’s plenty of messages in here that were utilized,” Basi said about Edelman’s strategic plan.
In response to questions about what happened in fall 2015 at MU, the document advised campus officials to say that the events were a “perfect storm,” that it was a challenge to “all of those who care deeply about this university” and that MU emerged from the protests “stronger than ever.”
In June of last year, shortly after the relationship between Edelman and the UM System began, former UM System Interim President Mike Middleton delivered a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in which he referred to the protests at the system’s flagship campus as a “perfect storm.”
It is nearly impossible to ascertain exactly which language in the Edelman documents was written by the firm rather than MU or campus staff. What is clear is that Edelman synthesized a clear message. The firm’s main role was to provide an outside perspective for MU, Basi said.
In a section of the crisis planning document called “Taking Control of Media Narrative,” Edelman recommended a change in media philosophy from quick responses and access to spokespersons to one where the school would rely more on pre-determined written statements: “Access to spokespeople will be reserved for key events.”
It suggested some events where MU could share positive media narratives, such as a Sept. 13, 2016, event called “DEI Media Day,” where MU could highlight its new diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
At that event, Middleton, then MU Interim Chancellor Hank Foley and Kevin McDonald, vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity, held a panel discussion about MU’s diversity initiatives. The goal, according to Edelman’s document, was to show that “Missouri cares about improving experiences for all of its students.”
Middleton, Foley and McDonald each repeatedly referred to the protests and football team strike as a “perfect storm” at the panel and used other phrases and ideas from the media plan.
Another example of the support Edelman provided to MU happened after a racially charged incident outside the Delta Upsilon Fraternity house, where members of the Legion of Black Collegians were met with racial slurs. Edelman provided the school with a “social audit” where it collected social media posts related to the incident to track interest in the story online.
Edelman found more than 9,000 relevant posts between Sept. 26 and Sept. 30, 2016, about the Delta Upsilon incident, which made up 35 percent of all social media posts about MU, according to the social audit.
The firm found the most significant media outlets contributing to the online explosion were the Washington Post and Total Frat Move, a website of entertainment and news aimed at a fraternity audience. The firm analyzed social media posts and graphed them over a five-day period, pointing out where interest in the incident peaked, began to slow down and eventually came to an end.
Edelman’s “Plan On A Page” document, which was among the “Crisis Planning Materials,” listed three metrics for the system to use to measure results.
The first was increased enrollment: MU’s enrollment total in 2015 was 35,488 students, and in 2016 it was 33,266 students. The first-time college enrollment in 2015 was 6,191 students, in 2016 it was 4,772 students, about a 23 percent decrease. This year’s fall enrollment is 30,870.
The second metric was “positive media coverage/acknowledgement of progress”: On July 9, The New York Times published “Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri” and on July 10 the Washington Post also published an article about people losing faith in higher education that was critical of MU.
At a mid-July curators retreat, UM System President Mun Choi described the media coverage of MU as a big problem and an “all-hands-on-deck” situation.
“This is a really critical period” for MU and the system to take strides toward better public perception, Choi said.
“If we don’t fix this now, there’s going to be another New York Times, another Washington Post article that we won’t recover from.”
The last metric was “increased donations and state funding.” During the fiscal year before Edelman was hired — from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016 — $170.1 million was raised, the most in school history. In fiscal year 2017, after Edelman was hired, $152 million was raised.
Even though it was lower than the previous year, fundraising in fiscal year 2017 was the fourth highest in MU’s history, Basi said. It’s unreasonable to expect MU to break records every year. Fiscal year 2017 did break the record for cash donations, Basi said, which is the amount paid up front, without including pledges and estate gifts.
In addition, state funding has dropped for all higher education institutions, with tens of millions coming out of the system and MU. On Jan. 17, Gov. Eric Greitens withheld about $80 million from the higher education budget, and MU lost about $20 million of that figure.
The fiscal year 2018 state budget cut 9 percent of higher education funding.
State higher education funding was cut across the entire state, Basi said, so the fact MU’s budget wasn’t slashed separately shows that Edelman has helped.
Across the system, there have been several rounds of budget cuts leading to layoffs and restructuring to help meet the deficit. An ongoing review process is seeking opportunities for expected future cuts.
“If we don’t fix this now, there’s going to be another New York Times, another Washington Post article that we won’t recover from.” Mun Choi UM System president