The University of California at Davis shelled out some $175,000 to consultants to clean up the school’s online reputation following a 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters, according to documents cited by the Sacramento Bee.
The university has since confirmed that it tried to improve its reputation following the pepper-spraying scandal.
“We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis told the Bee. “We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.”
The incident occurred Nov. 18, 2011, when Occupy demonstrators ignored orders to leave the UC Davis campus and university police started spewing pepper spray into the crowd. The police response prompted massive protests on campus, which gained national media attention and ignited a debate about police brutality and use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.
The Sacramento Bee reported that the backlash lingered for more than a year as the university became embroiled in investigations and lawsuits that soiled the school’s reputation.
In January 2013, UC Davis signed a contract with Nevins & Associates in Maryland for “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor,” according to the proposal. The cost: $15,000 a month for six months.
“Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011,” the proposal said. “This campaign also includes consultation services from David Nevins, founder and President of Nevins & Associates, to provide further support to the reputation enhancement efforts of the university and Chancellor Katehi, as desired. Online evidence and the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the Chancellor are being filtered through the 24-hour news cycle, but it is at a tepid pace.”
The following year, the university hired Sacramento-based ID Media Partners, known as IDMLOCO, for $82,500 to “design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy” with the intent to “achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi,” according to the proposal.
The Bee reported that the firm was awarded a second contract in February 2015 for $8,000 a month (up to a maximum of $96,000) to improve the university’s social media program; a third contract was awarded in September 2015 for $22,500 a month (up to a maximum $67,500) for a strategic communications redesign.
The university told the Bee that the funds were taken from the communications department budget.
Today, a Google search for “UC Davis pepper spray” pulls up news articles and YouTube videos of the 2011 incident as well as results on John Pike, who was identified as one of the campus police officers captured on video pepper-spraying protesters. A search for “UC Davis” reveals mainly university-sponsored web pages, including its Facebook page and an official athletics page.
In recent years, online reputation management agencies have become popular among celebrities, corporations and other high-profile clients who want a fresh start online.
Daniel Russell from Go Fish Digital, a firm based in McLean, Va., told The Washington Post’s Caitlin Gibson in 2014 that repeated searches and clicks tell search engines such as Google that the link is important.
“If there’s something bad out there,” he said, “the first thing to do is to stop looking at it.”
But Doug Elmets, a public affairs consultant in Sacramento, told the Bee this week that it’s surprising UC Davis thought it could keep its cleanup efforts quiet.
“I would say that it is common for an individual who might be applying for a job or an individual who has been wrongly maligned to go to a company like Reputation.com, but for a public university that is funded through taxpayer funds, who has repeatedly stepped into a vast hole, it is surprising that they thought this could be done without the light of day shining on the act,” he told the newspaper. “It is one more example of how out of touch the leadership at UC Davis is when it comes to their public perspective.”
Neither Nevins & Associates nor IDMLOCO provided comment to the Sacramento Bee or the Associated Press.
UC Davis officials could not immediately be reached for comment.