The HSA: Older, Wiser--and Bigger
Problems in Public Relations
Last September, the Harvard Student Agencies, Incorporated, was born amid cries of "monopoly" and "dictatorship." Now, one year later, HSA has weathered, but not conquered, teething pains which racked the organization in its early months.
Even directors feel that the early expansion of the company was ineptly handled. "We made an error of judgment in trying to gauge student reactions," Dustin M. Burke '52, director of the Student Employment Office, stated. "Our introduction to the Harvard community was tactlessly handled," HSA president Theodore H. Elliott admits.
Some of the faux pas of which over-exuberant HSA directors were guilty included implied coercion of independent concessionaires, poor presentation of the organization's advantages, and even lowered profits as the price of membership. All this uproar came through misjudgment. Burke and the other directors believed that "our greatest problem would come from Harvard Square merchants, not from the students themselves."
Even a Madison Avenue hotshot could not hope to straighten out the public relations mess in which the HSA became entangled. Thus, HSA's main problem for this second year, and perhaps for some years to come, will be making friends among the student members. Officers of the corporation are now walking a tight-rope; without some public approbation, the member concessionaires cannot make an adequate profit.
Hypersensitivity is now the most obvious characteristic of HSA officers, a complete reversal from the blatant reassurance shown a year ago. Two examples show this new attitude. The owners of the Lowell House newspaper stand complained last year that they lost profits because the HSA central purchasing agency didn't pay bills promptly enough to earn a special commission. As a result, the purchasing agency was abolished. Also, a Harvard Square photographer complained about a proposed HSA photo agency. The HSA dropped plans for this new agency immediately, rather than incurring possible ill-feeling with the Harvard Square Businessmen's Association.
Ill-feeling can spring up again within the College itself if the HSA extends its projects to conflict with other student-run organizations. Agencies within the HSA, such as the Eliot Grill and the refreshment agency, compete with each other; under existing conditions, however, it would be practically impossible for a student to organize a charter flight without HSA sanction. Europe by Air monopolizes the field. The division between competition and supplementation is delicate and when the HSA treads heavily injustice could result.
But dismal public relations is not the only problem which the growing agency must face. Rapid expansion in its first year brought its own difficulties. "Our first year was valuable as far as development goes, but we must consolidate our gains," Elliott notes. The expansion continues unabated; Burke expects that the stadium concessions, the new weekly calendar, and the student sampler will employ up to 140 at one time. Last year's total business amounted to nearly $30,000 for 125 students, while the new concessions may boost this total to $50,000.
The influence of the Student Employment Office provides a major direction for HSA. Under terms of the corporation charter, the Employment Office can refer needy students to various HSA members for jobs. The goal of the Employment Office, according to Burke, is to enable any needy student to earn $300-$450 during the school year. Thus, the HSA has become just another outlet for jobs, along with the dorms crews, kitchens, or libraries. "We try to fit the student to the job," Burke comments, "and the existence of the HSA provides additional flexibility in employment opportunities."
Any student with strong financial wants is practically assured of work. No agency director has yet turned down an applicant referred by the Employment Office. Although the individual managers supposedly have the option of not accepting candidates, a subtle coercive pressure forces acceptance. If carried to the extreme degree, an agency director could lose all freedom of choosing his workers.
The Employment Office exercises a definite influence for needy students in considering possible managers for agencies. "We try to pick our managers on the basis of need and business ability," Burke notes. Under this criterion, a student of means would be excluded from agency management unless he brought up the original idea. The outgoing manager, in conjunction with the director of Student Employment, can nominate a successor for the approval of the Board of Directors. However, since nine of the fifteen directors are graduates now in business and without direct College contact, approval is only rubber-stamp.
The establishment of the HSA could become a great boon for the Student Employment Office. Also, the corporation could benefit the bright student with a new profit-making idea. The HSA can provide credit to start a business, and will provide secretarial service for the new concessionaire. The Board of Directors can provide advice, and the Student Employment Office can refer other students as assistants.
Older concessions, however, can suffer under the NSA regime. Once the "founder" of a new concession has graduated from the University, his profit-making idea becomes the property of the Employment Office. Techniques could become stultified, and originality driven out. Continuous repetition "can be insidious," Burke states, and standardized practices could, in effect, destroy potential profits. There should be some provision to discontinue outdated agencies.
Weaknesses still exist in the HSA, despite the year of trial and error. The corporation has no floating funds and no reserve for emergencies. Thus, the directors refuse to join any speculative venture, even despite the lure of potential high profits and maximum employment. Some sort of fund to provide security would make many more largescale projects possible for student businessmen. Caution is the key-word of all current HSA projects.
One year has brought a great change in the attitude of the HSA towards its public. Time will show a similar change of attitude of students towards HSA. Improved public relations, more regard for the individual entrepreneur, and less attempts at coercion of established business can make the HSA a much less suspected part of the Cambridge community