Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Truth" Only Unto Its PR Parts

As a Brandeis grad I find myself following the Rose Art Museum PR disaster with particular interest. The most amazing thing about this story is how many people Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz managed to annoy with a single letter to students, faculty and alumni. Not only did he manage to annoy his own inner family of Brandeis people, but also the arts community, the journalism establishment and even the average person in Boston. People around my office who neither care about art nor ever set foot on the Brandeis campus are talking about this mess.

In a sense, Brandeis did the right thing by hiring Rasky Baerlein to help with crisis PR in this mess. The well-connected crew over there immediately put Reinharz in front of major local journalists to clear the air, including interviews with the Boston Globe and WBUR. Their strategy also included a letter to faculty and students (though, not to alumni) clarifying what the trustees actually meant when they voted on the Rose. That is, that the museum would be closed and they MAY sell some artwork over time.

The problem, however, is that the moves are far too blatant and haven't really changed anything. Rose Curator Michael Rush made the point early on in the discussion that Rose donors would not come back if they felt that the museum was in jeopardy, the Brandeis President has done nothing to assuage those fears.

As for the strategy, the Brandeis student paper called The Hoot says the following:

While last Wednesday, Reinharz told The Hoot that “we have no media strategy,” he said yesterday that the university has temporarily hired public relations firm Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications Inc. in order to “correct misstatements that are now floating all over the world about the rose.”

The President would not specify as to how long the university would employ the public relations firm. He also said that the firm has already helped the university in dealing with the Boston Globe this week when they convinced the Globe to hold a story a day so that Reinharz could clarify some of the details of the piece.

Rasky Baerlein’s vice president Melissa Monahan told The Hoot in a phone interview that the administration has been working directly with both her and the President of Rasky Baerlein. Other clients of Rasky Baerlein include the Boston Red Sox, North Eastern University and Toyota.

Neither Reinharz nor Monahan would comment on how much the university is paying the public relations firm for their services.

Monahan did say, however that the firm is helping the administration deal both with the national press and with the student press and Brandeis community.

The paper goes on to point out major discrepancies between the trustees' vote on the issue and the press release the school put out. In a way, Brandeis created its own problem.

The school completely underestimated the backlash this announcement would have. The best crisis PR is to avoid the problem from the start. (Note to Dennis Nealon, this may be a good time to find a new job.)

Right now the school has to focus on one person: Rush. He is the hero here, the person who was blindsided by the school and who has been speaking out about his displeasure. Any crisis PR program must focus on gaining HIS trust, then bringing him out to speak to the other constituencies. If you can't get him on your side, then it's lost anyway.

Though, according to Bloomberg, Rush's job is apparently ending on June 30.