Calibrating the Public Relations Machine

Gazette stays on message as University shakeup makes national headlines

The year was 1641.

Harvard College, a cash-poor five-year-old institution of higher learning, sent three Cambridge, Mass., preachers to England on a “begging mission.”

When the pioneering preachers arrived, they realized what is now a precept of fundraising: they needed some literature.

The trio sent word of its epiphany back across the Atlantic, and so in London in 1643 there appeared “New England’s First Fruits”—“the first of countless public relations pamphlets and brochures,” according to Clarke L. Caywood, a public relations scholar at Northwestern University.

The 26-page brochure extols Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster: “Over the Colledge is master Dunster placed, as President, a learned, conscionable and industrious man, who hath so trained up his Pupills in the tongues and Arts, and so seasoned them with the principles of Divinity and Christianity, that we have to our great comfort, (and in truth) beyond our hopes, beheld their progresse in Learning and godlinesse also.”

Three hundred sixty-three years and 26 presidents later, Harvard’s marquee public relations publication—the Harvard University Gazette, circulation 37,000—is carrying on the tradition set by its earliest predecessor.

On February 21, the day of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ resignation, the full-color weekly reported on Summers’ “dramatic,” “concrete,” and “major”achievements for the University and his strengths as leader. Not one of the article’s 2,700 words directly mentions the Faculty uproar that drove Summers out.

The Gazette’s conspicuous near-ignorance of the furor that engulfed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for the past 15 months is not surprising given Summers’ influence on the University’s public relations apparatus.

Summers, who became Harvard president after a year-and-a-half as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, quickly became known for a “Washington-style” attitude toward the media.

It was that style, some say, that contributed to his increasing alienation from the Faculty and his ultimate downfall this semester.

ACADEMIA’S PHOTO-OP

Andrew D. Gordon ’74, the chair of the History department, tells a story about the first time he had “a sense of real concern about what is going on with this administration.” That point came in a December 2001 planning meeting for Summers’ upcoming trip to Japan.

The meeting, held in the president’s office in Mass. Hall, was led by Summers’ chief of staff and included Gordon and Reischauer Professor of Japanese Politics Susan Pharr. The president was not present.

“It was all about photo-ops and appearances and opportunities,” Gordon recalls. “Who should he talk to, how would it appear, what are the visuals going to be like at this kind of a meeting or that—it felt like a political campaign strategy session for someone who’s running for office.”

The meeting offered a jarring contrast, Gordon says, to the one that Neil L. Rudenstine held before he left for Japan as University president in the mid-nineties. Gordon says that Rudenstine convened “eight or nine” Japan scholars for two hours and asked each to tell him “what are you working on, what should I be concerned about, what should I be interested in.”

The differences between Rudenstine’s and Summers’ approaches were “so extraordinary,” Gordon says. “My impression was this was a very different kind of operation—which maybe will work wellfor Harvard, but it just felt quite alien to the sense of a research- and teaching-focused sort of intellectual operation.”

SUMMERS STYLE

The public relations operation at the University became a well-oiled machine under Summers, members of the media say.

“President Summers has had a great deal of experience with external news, has great interest in it, devoted a lot of time to it, devoted a lot of resources to it, and clearly wanted to have more direct control over how that kind of news and access to reporting was done,” says John S. Rosenberg, the editor of Harvard Magazine since 1994. “It’s perfectly fine for him to do, but it certainly has narrowed our ability to do the kinds of extensive reporting we have in the past.”

Harvard Magazine, an alumni bimonthly that accepts some funds from the University but is editorially independent, covered the Summers-FAS crisis extensively with Faculty meeting transcripts online and analyses in print.

For Rosenberg, the changes in public relations under Summers have reduced his staff’s access to top administrators. Both Harvard Magazine and The Crimson are only allowed to interview Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C . Kirby with a press officer present—a departure from the looser rules of previous administrations.

“It’s more difficult to have casual conversations than it used to be five years ago,” Rosenberg says.

Crimson reporter Catherine Shoichet ’04, now a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times, remembers that the change in how Summers’ office handled the press was striking at the time.

“A few of my Crimson colleagues, and others at the University, referred to the notable increase in PR presence during Summers’ tenure as the ‘Washingtonization’ of Harvard,” she wrote in an e-mail.

In another departure from the higher ed norm, Summers hired his own press secretary upon assuming the presidency.

Lucie McNeil, the first person to hold the title, came to Harvard in late 2002 after working as a senior press officer for Tony Blair.

Ever since, the position has drawn the ire of some faculty members, who see it as unnecessarily political.

“The president of Harvard does not need a spokesman,” Gordon, the history chair, says.

The manpower expansion of the public relations operation may be less significant than some observers contend, however. According to Joe Wrinn, the director of the Harvard News Office, the staff of the office grew by just two positions under Summers’ tenure—from 29 to 31. That does not take into account any changes at the 11 other news offices at Harvard.

‘HARVARD’S PRAVDA’

As news of Summers’ resignation under fire made national headlines and riveted the faculty, the Gazette conspicuously ignored the furor. Only a reference to “a difficult and sometimes wrenching” year in a Feb. 21 article about Summers’ resignation—quoting a letter from the Fellows of the Corporation—suggested that the president’s exit may have been less than graceful.

In that story, The Gazette reported: “Since his appointment five years ago, Summers has spurred attention to renewing the undergraduate experience, guided the launch of innovative interdisciplinary initiatives in the sciences and beyond, and strongly expanded Harvard’s international agenda... During his presidency, Harvard has achieved dramatic faculty growth, undertaken major investments in an array of new facilities, and taken the first concrete steps toward building Harvard’s extended campus in Allston.”

The Gazette—dubbed “the house organ” and “Harvard’s Pravda” by some professors and observers—had never reported the events of the heated Feb. 7 Faculty meeting.

Four high-ranking officials at the Office of News and Public Affairs who were contacted for this story­—Alan J. Stone, the University’s vice president for government, community, and public affairs; Joe Wrinn, the director of the News Office; John Longbrake, Summers’ spokesman; and Terry Murphy, the managing editor of the Gazette—all declined to comment on why The Gazette ignored the furor.

When asked last month whether The Gazette was correct to avoid reporting on the debates of the Faculty, Kirby hesitated and then replied: “I think one of the reasons that Harvard Magazine is so widely read is it does have a level of editorial independence that is unique for its kind of publication.”

A look at other major universities and at Harvard’s own recent past shows that ignoring bad news may not always be the right public relations strategy.

In April 2001, two months before Summers became president, dozens of students stormed the central administration’s offices in Mass. Hall and pledged not to leave until the University guaranteed $10.25 an hour to every worker on campus. The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called the students “Harvard’s heroes.”

With a public relations disaster looming, the Harvard News Office set up a website featuring statements from Harvard officials and critical coverage from The Gazette. An April 26 article headlined “Resolution Sought in Mass. Hall Standoff” quoted a protester on then-University President Rudenstine: “He only agrees to meet with us to perpetuate the impression that he’s listening.”

This year, Duke University took the Internet public relations model to another level. In the wake of the lacrosse scandal, the university set up a web page, linked off of duke.edu, that carries official statements about the alleged rape of a local woman by three undergraduate lacrosse players as well as links to often-unflattering news and opinion articles in the national press.

Duke’s associate vice president for news and communications, David Jarmul, said his office hoped that “trying to be as transparent as possible enhances the university’s own credibility.”

“The old adage is, ‘If it’s good news, get it out fast, and if it’s bad news, get it out faster,’” Jarmul said.

The Gazette, however, seems to work on a different model, attracting criticism from within and outside the University.

“I often wonder who reads it,” said biological oceanographer James J. McCarthy, the master of Pforzheimer House and chair of the committee on degrees in environmental science and public policy. “It’s a place to look if you want to know what music you might find on Thursday, but I don’t know who decides what purpose it serves.”

Judith Phair, last year’s president of the world’s largest organization for public relations professionals, the Public Relations Society of America, said that modern trends in university public relations stress openness and credibility.

“If all you’re doing is telling people what you want them to know, you’re not doing a complete job,” she said. “What is so important on the public relations side is creating that climate where people feel good about the institution—and I don’t mean that in a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good way, but that people feel that this is a trusted institution, this is a transparent institution.”

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.