UA Prof Carolyn Smith Casertano: The UA botched its on-campus communications
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UA Prof Carolyn Smith Casertano: The UA botched its on-campus communications

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

In my public relations classes at the University of Arizona we often discuss the lauded Arthur Page principles: Tell the truth. Prove it with action. Listen to the customer. Manage for tomorrow. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people. Remain calm, patient and good-humored.

In light of the revelation that the University of Arizona Foundation hired conservative PR firm Cavalry LLC to secure numerous high-profile media interviews for President Robert Robbins there are several key learnings that are important not just in this particular situation but moving forward for the UA.

One of the basic tenets of any effective public relations campaign is to ensure full transparency and buy-in from your internal stakeholders. In this case it was the hundreds of University of Arizona faculty and staff who were surprised to learn not from UA leadership but from national media interviews that we would all be back on campus teaching in person for the fall 2020 semester.

While positive publicity helps generate awareness and positions Robbins as a leader in the higher education conversation about COVID-19 for his medical background and bold optimism about the future of in-person classes, it remains unfortunate that the UA did not reciprocate the support they were asking of its employees as most of us take furloughs to help offset the purported $250 million in projected losses.

As UA faculty member Farid Matuk states in the article by Justin Sayers, “When you ask employees to take a pay cut, you increase our stake. There’s been no reciprocal increase in shared governance and transparency in government.” It’s a problematic scenario because in addition to reducing morale amongst the staff and faculty, it creates an environment of mistrust in the leadership of the UA and skepticism that employees are a priority in the organization.

As a new professor of practice in the Department of Communication, I teach the introduction to public relations class, in addition to a new crisis communications class. Students are quick to understand that businesses and organizations who do right by their employees fare much better with internal support, loyalty and engagement. While the university has every right to publicize its plan to test, treat and trace all students, faculty and staff, there was a clear alternative to garner support before launching this campaign.

Regarding the conservative PR firm selected by the foundation, one has to wonder about the vetting process utilized. In my former professional career in public relations, I worked with national media outlets, including “Today” show producers, to secure media interviews for clients.

There are highly-talented PR firms here in Tucson and Phoenix, who could have been utilized to produce similar results. Doing so would have generated goodwill within the local community, and demonstrated support for our Arizona public relations firms who are eager to support local businesses and institutions.

Listen to the customer. This is perhaps the most important principle from Arthur Page. Listen, engage and validate your customers concerns, and in doing so you create a powerful dynamic that will not only positively impact your organization, it will undoubtedly endear your customers to trust in your leadership and expertise.

University of Arizona leaders would be smart to quickly embrace this principle, and demonstrate good public relations by being transparent and truthful in disclosing the decision-making process utilized to hire Cavalry Public Relations.

It would benefit all of us to understand the strategic direction the UA is taking in its steps to bring our Wildcat family back together in person, and address the concerns of staff and faculty in acknowledging this situation.

Carolyn Smith Casertano is a public relations consultant and assistant professor of practice in the UA Communication Department. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Public Relations Society of America Western District and is a past president of the Southern Arizona Chapter of PRSA. She is an accredited PR professional by the Public Relations Society of America.

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