Learning To Toot Its Own Horn

Power on this campus comes from publicity.

Just take a look at what used to be a sleepy little group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). Until that group put its publicity effort in overdrive—covering the campus in posters and getting itself covered in the pages of this newspaper—PSLM was just another small political group on campus, fighting for respect.

Maybe the Undergraduate Council should take a lesson.

For all its attempts to do good things for the Harvard student body, the Undergraduate Council sabotages itself by failing to conduct good publicity. People know the council for its role in things like election scandals and a debate on grapes in the dining halls—and not for very much else.

Put simply, the Undergraduate Council has a major PR problem. Although this is something that I have asserted from the time since I was an elected representative on the council, this weekend’s council-sponsored Springfest offers a good illustration.

While it might have been hard for students who live on the River to ignore the sounds of music and games on the Mac Quad, for many students who live in the Radcliffe Quad, the fact that Springfest was even happening came as a surprise. No one who I came in contact with throughout the day on Saturday mentioned the event—not a scientific measure by any standard, but telling nevertheless.

For an event that constitutes one of the council’s most expensive and visible activities each year, Springfest received a shameful amount of advance publicity. There were no posters advertising the event in any of the main areas of Cabot House, nor can I recall seeing a single Springfest poster anywhere else on campus.

To be sure, perhaps I simply overlooked the publicity. But as a former council member, and one-time secretary of the Campus Life Committee, which plans Springfest, I tend to keep my eyes open for council-related events.

That the council failed to properly publicize this event is nothing new—nor does it speak to the failure of any one person to make sure that the publicity occurred. Rather, publicity (or the lack thereof) is a chronic problem on the council, and one that tends to become ingrained as successive groups of representatives and leaders cycle through the organization.

At the heart of the problem, it seems, is that there is very little incentive for any one person to take the full responsibility for the Undergraduate Council’s publicity. Being publicity chair, at Harvard or at your high school student council, is a job without glory. And particularly in a place like Harvard, where value is often placed on holding executive level positions, being in charge of publicity just seems sort of lame.

But if the council ever hopes to improve its image among students and the administration, or start holding events that consistently draw huge crowds, it must address the issue of how to toot its own horn.

So, how should the council go about improving its non-existent PR department? First, and most importantly, the council needs a true publicity maven—someone who would want to take on the challenge and would head up publicity for all of the council’s events and initiatives. To make this type of position desirable, the council should create an additional spot on its executive committee for the chief of publicity. Doing so would lend some prestige and weight to the person’s role.

Although the council technically has a press secretary, the publicity maven should do more than just answer the random question from a Crimson reporter. Bringing interesting stories and angles to the attention of a newspaper can often end up meaning more coverage for the group.

What’s more, the council should form an additional committee for publicity to be chaired by this PR maven. First-year representatives should be required to serve on the publicity committee before being assigned to one of the council’s other activities or initiatives-focused committees. Requiring first-years to serve on the committee not only ensures a certain number of bodies to make postering runs and the such, but it also gives those first-years a chance to cut their teeth on council business and impress the higher-ups. That is to say, there’s a built-in incentive for these reps to do a good job, as future positions within the council may depend on it.

Finally, the council should simply do more to leverage public resources that are easily accessible. The council should require representatives to post council updates over House e-mail lists on a regular basis. Additionally, the group should use its privileged position as Harvard’s student government to negotiate a deal with Harvard University Dining Service for more regular space on dining hall table tents.

All in all, if PSLM can do it, so can the council. For a group that actually does do a lot of good and important work, it’s a shame that it can’t get its own word out.

Scott A. Resnick ’01 is an economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.