The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a field of study in its mass communications school on public relations. And a number of loyal university graduates are successful public relations executives in this area. In addition, one vice chancellor’s office includes public affairs as one of its duties.
Why, then, would the university run up a tab likely to approach $2 million for outside public relations help that seems focused in large part on dealing with the fallout from the athletics-academics scandal that has unfolded over a three-year period?
There is no acceptable answer to that question. And the university’s statement that the money to pay the public relations experts from Edelman, the world’s largest such firm, hasn’t come from tuition or state money is no justification. This is money under the university’s control, and it’s splitting hairs to say it is or is not public money.
The academic-athletics scandal, with phony courses and academic advisers guiding athletes to them and with administrators failing miserably in oversight, was not a public relations problem.
Kenneth Wainstein, the former Justice Department official who ran a months-long investigation into the scandal following years of stories in The News & Observer, affirmed those stories in his conclusions. There were phony classes. There were university employees sending athletes to those classes to keep them eligible. There were improper grades.
This wasn’t about public relations, about trying to smooth out the rough edges, about “spinning” the story to make it more favorable to the university. This was about honesty. It was about truth. It was about pursuing that truth, even if it proved unfavorable to the university, which it did.
To add to the embarrassment, the university’s leaders harshly criticized whistle-blower Mary Willingham, who had been an academic adviser and dared to speak out. She has yet to receive a deserved apology from administrators.
None of this could have been solved with better public relations. Truth and openness would have cost nothing.