by JAMIE VERWYS
Pima Community College has come under fire for its media relationships and lack of transparency for the last few years. In 2013, when the Higher Learning Commission placed PCC on probation they highlighted a “culture of fear” at the college. Employees expressed an underlying feeling of intimidation when it came to speaking out about their concerns.
Aztec Press reporters often found faculty and other employees unwilling to go on the record for stories, even for pieces regarding college events or issues they had direct knowledge of. Many expressed fear of retaliation if they spoke to the paper.
The call for Pima to open up more then other institutions, given its recent history and the current sanctions it is still under, has been brought up in the past.
In May 2013, Karen Solomon, a vice president with the HLC, told Pima’s board, “We expect our institutions to provide information and be transparent with information being provided to the student body and constituents.”
The college does remain “on notice,” which means Pima is still “at risk of not meeting one or more of the Criteria for Accreditation, Federal Compliance requirements or Assumed Practices.”
On Oct. 3, an update to Pima’s media policy was leaked to the Arizona Daily Star, which first reported on the changes. These additions lengthen the original policy from a couple of paragraphs to over a page. The release of Pima’s new media guidelines have gained critical attention from local journalists, PCC faculty and the community as a whole.
Green Valley News editor Dan Shearer says these changes are unwise for the college.
“The policy isn’t the direction you’d expect PCC to go given its poor public perception,” he said. “They should be working toward candor and transparency. This throws up a wall, which leads to speculation, which leads to rumors, which leads to more problems. They can’t afford this.”
The item that seems to be most alarming to faculty and media experts alike, is the instruction to employees “to notify us (Pima’s public relations firm) immediately if you receive a media inquiry, and do not grant an interview or provide any information.”
University of Arizona School of Journalism director David Cuiller agrees with Shearer that Pima is going in the wrong direction.
“It’s a big hit to the trust that students and faculty and employees would have in the administration. I think it’s a big mistake,” he said.
“Instead of working hard to control information, they should instead be open and trusting of their employees to be able to talk to the public,” he added. “It just shows a real lack of courage and understanding of the democratic process. It’s just a shame. “
PCC faculty are required per the guidelines to report all media inquiries to PR/Communications head, Libby Howell. She said the process is supposed to function as a streamline, where employees tell Howell and then she can provide relevant background information, set up interviews with the best spokesperson on the subject and ensure timely and accurate information.
“There are some occasions that are better to have a central expert on behalf of a particular program,” she says. “So we can assist in that regard in some ways. Case in point is, there have been lots of occasions when someone has been asked to be the authorized spokesperson on a particular subject and we have been able to fill additional information.”
Faculty who receive interview requests are further advised that someone from the Public Relations Department will “provide counsel on how to respond and how to present Pima in the best light possible.”
Cuillier said this signals a big problem.
“It’s all about spin and control and that’s not cool,” says Cuillier. “I mean, we are seeing this happen around the country more often and journalists and the public need to push back and not put up with it.
Shearer sees the control of information as a tactic of suppression.
They’re not telling us we can’t have information, they’re saying it has to be vetted and funneled and shaped. That means they’re trying to control a message, and when you do that, you control people,” he said.
Howell stressed that the guidelines are not meant to silence the opinions and personal thoughts of employees, but are only in place to ensure information accurate.
“The college has not restricted employees from expressing personal opinions or feelings they have as individuals,” she said.
“However, the college has set standards for when an employee speaks as a representative or official spokesperson for the college, in order to provide the most accurate and up to date information to news media.”
According to Howell, the protocol of having a centralized PR employee to direct media inquiries and public information is not something new at the college, and is common practice in the collegiate world. She says that these are merely revisions to the guidelines in place and all that has changed was the contact information provided.
“There have been additions to the policy that explain the role that we have in trying to provide customer service to reporters,” she said.
In the original guidelines versus the new, there is only one difference in the wording of the rule not to give interviews and information: please. The word “please” was used in the first version and has been excluded in the revision.
New additions on the PR department’s involvement include providing background information on reporters and the story, setting up interview times and locations and, “in many cases, a marketing or media relations person will be present during the interview in case further assistance is required.”
Though the revisions to the pre-existing guidelines create a far firmer set of rules for college employees working with the press, many faculty only became aware of the change from the Star article. PCC never publicly announced the new guidelines to the community, local media, students or all employees of the college. The Star only obtained these changes through an anonymous source.
PCC employees reached out to the Aztec Press, expressing dismay about not finding this information internally from the college, but rather local media.
Howell says that the information was shared internally on a need to know basis.
“It was distributed to all administrators. Administrators were told to share this with any employees that they feel are appropriate,” she said.
“Students were not informed because it doesn’t apply to students,” she added.
The revisions are not to a Board Policy, a practice that is adopted by the Board of Governors in a public meeting, but rather they are guidelines.
“It’s important to differentiate between guidelines and policies,” Howell said. “Policies are official legal things that have to be posted on the website, voted on by the board, get numbers assigned to them…these are guidelines. It is not a policy in the legal sense of the word.”
Guidelines at Pima are not official documents, are far less formal and do not require the same development that policies require.
Because this is a guideline, Howell said that the repercussion for an employee who speaks to the media without informing the college would be “a gentle email from me saying don’t forget to lets us know.”
As far as the penalty for breaking one of the college’s Board policies, Howell says it all depends on the specific details of the situation.
Howell was responsible for updating the media guidelines. She created the additions, had it approved by her supervisor, Vice Chancellor Stella Perez and then sent it to the Chancellor’s executive team for review. The board, were not necessary to include in this process.
Per Board Policy 2.16 on media information, “the Board of Governors directs the chancellor to provide continuous college information to the public and representatives of the news media, provided the release of such information is within limits established by state and federal laws and regulations.”
Mark Hanna represents District One on the board, and doesn’t feel Pima’s media policy is any different than other colleges.
“The policy is not unlike that at many other institutions, who want to make sure that a clear, factual message is communicated to the press,” he wrote in an email interview.
He believes employees are still permitted to state clearly their opinions.
“It is my personal opinion that it is not designed to deny any employee the right to speak as an individual.”
Board Chair Sylvia Lee also noted that the guidelines are “just common sense and good practice.”
“The majority of community colleges have very similar media standards,” she said. “I do however believe PCC’s media policy could be reworded so it is less inflammatory.”
PCC is firm in stating that the guidelines in place are standard practice and that they often use other community colleges to help determine their own polices and guidelines.
When the Aztec Press reached out to other community colleges in the state, it was clear that the suggestion to inform PR departments of media inquiries was common, but barring employees from speaking to the press was not so strongly defined.
“We encourage employees to refer media requests to our media relations departments, but there is no policy prohibiting employee communication with news media,” said Andrew Tucker, the district manager of communications at Maricopa Community College, in an email interview.
Karen Harbin, marketing and public relations at Estrella Mountain Community College also stated that, “we strongly encourage our employees to notify the college’s PR department when they receive requests from media.”
Lee sent the Aztec Press various examples of community colleges nationwide who implement such media polices and believes the Daily Star failed to do their full research in their article.
“In my opinion, the intent behind the article was to negatively impact the public’s opinion of PCC,” she said. “It appears to me that the Daily Star reporters are doing everything they can to hurt and discredit PCC in order to sell newspapers.”
For Shearer, though policies like these are common, there is a higher need for colleges to be transparent.
“This is not an uncommon policy in corporate America, but PCC isn’t corporate America, it’s an education institution and belongs to the public,” he said.
Though Pima has highlighted the potential good in their media guidelines, such as inquiries going to the most knowledgeable on the subject, it is apparent there is potential for abuse.
Shearer says PCC needs to surrender its tight grip on information and how it is presented, and that Chancellor Lee Lambert is not much of an improvement for the college.
“Former Chancellor Roy Flores ruled with fear, and employees responded by clamming up – well, most of them,” he said.
“This is Chancellor Lambert’s version of that. It doesn’t seem as draconian, but the result is the same: The public will hear only our message.”
“That often means we won’t really hear the truth of what’s going on. My guess is that over time, PCC will modify and relax this policy when it realizes it’s onerous,” he said.
Cuillier offered this advice for journalists seeking to talk to Pima employees with the revised guidelines in place.
“I think the best way of combatting this is, ignore it. Ignore the rule, keep talking to employees even if they don’t want to talk for fear of being disciplined, and tell the administration this is creepy,” he said.
“Public pressure can often change policy. People don’t have to go along with this and people can push back.”