Edelman, Illinois, and Uncivil Communication

The emails transacted over personal email accounts by the Illinois administration reveal that the Illinois administration had consulted the Public Relations firm Edelman.

Now if you take a good look at Edelman, you recognize that the PR company does a lot of talking about values such as engagement, transparency, and trust. These values, Edelman suggests, are the communication values of the new millennium, essential to cultivating trust in a climate of falling trust depicted in the Edelman Trust Barometer.

In fact, in an Institute of Public Relations Award ceremony speech on engagement, you hear Mr. Edelman speak eloquently about the interplay of policy and communication, suggesting that communication practitioners have a pivotal role in shaping organizational policy.

Here is Mr. Edelman exhorting PR practitioners to practice PR as engagement:

Given Edelman's strong claims about its commitment to engagement, it came to me as great surprise to learn that the Illinois administration was consulting Edelman during the Steven Salaita crisis. As an example of what not to do in communication, the Illinois example stands out. As I have argued elsewhere, the Illinois example demonstrates the high-handedness, ethical vacuum, aversion to engagement, and ironically, the incivility of a power-drunk administration. The handling of communication reflected the opposite of engagement, a value that Edelman supposedly espouses so strongly. So what advise was Edelman offering Phyllis Wise and her team?

Now there are certain things about the Salaita crisis (defined as "crisis" from the standpoint of the University administration and hence perhaps the payment to a PR firm as consultant) that I am unclear about. What was the point at which Edelman was consulted is not very clear. Is Edelman the regular PR agency of Illinois that handles its everyday public relations? Or was Edelman selected to handle the Salaita crisis? Has Illinois as an academic institution historically engaged a high billing PR firm? If so, why? And if not, why not?

These aspects are not evident from the email exchanges. Also unclear are responses to questions such as: Why does the University need to hire a PR firm? How much was Edelman billing the University? What were the deliverables from the consultative process? What metrics were going to be used to hold Edelman accountable? (If we are to go by the subsequent fallout and poor management of the crisis, the University ought to ask Edelman to pay its money back).

The other question that the Edelman interaction raises is this: What is the counsel that Edelman was providing to Phyllis Wise and to the UIUC team?

In the only one reference to Edelman that emerges in the released email exchanges (at least in the release of the exchanges conducted over personal email), Phyllis Wise writes:

Here is the specific reference that Wise makes to Edelman's counsel "stay as one voice."

Wise's reference to Edelman suggests that she felt she was led to miscommunicate about her role (and perhaps her opinion) by sticking to the counsel of "staying as one voice." The exchange insinuates that the messaging at the time placed her as the point of decision-making although she notes that this was an incorrect depiction. She further notes that she stuck to the message because she was guided by the Edelman counsel to stay as one voice. This one email suggests that Wise was the face of the University's response, taking the heat, while at the same time obscuring the perhaps more powerful and important role of the Board of Trustees (BoT).

She further notes that "I have been carrying the water...I don't think I can do that any longer. I am going to talk with Scott about setting the record straight." It seems from this excerpt that she wanted to set the record straight regarding the role of the BoT and the various points of decision-making that led to the decision to unhire Professor Salaita. She also states that it is "just plain not true" that she had made the decision and the BOT had followed her recommendation. It also then appears that Edelman in their advise recommended that she stick to a messaging strategy that to Wise felt untrue.

What we can infer from this exchange is that Edelman was counseling UIUC to stick to one message with one voice, at least in the interpretation offered by Wise, a key actor. In other words, the main Edelman advise that staid with Wise was "stay as one voice," which in her depiction was in opposition with her interpretation of events.

This PR strategy of "staying as one voice," especially in the face of a crisis is an age-old strategy (Carbide utilized the same strategy in the wake of the Bhopal gas leak) focuses on the message instead of on the process, with the goal of effectiveness in mind. It instructs all communicators to be consistent, irrespective of the veracity of the message or the correspondence of the message with any semblance of actual interactions.

The strategy "stay as one voice" does not sit well with the PR speeches and keynotes delivered by Mr. Edelman where he exhorts the public relations profession to focus on transparency, accountability, and engagement. In the advise "stay as one voice," the role of an organization is one of staying as one voice even in the face of a crisis that has been brought about by organizational malpractice. It does not feel a whole lot like dialogue with stakeholders or informing organizational policy through conversations with stakeholders. The impetus seems to be on averting the crisis rather than on genuinely impacting organizational policy and practice.

If Edelman followed what it preaches at regular PR meetings, the advise to the UIUC administration should have been: "Let's review your practices and invite key stakeholders in to reviewing these practices." One of the first points of engagement would have been the American Indian Studies program, a department within UIUC whose decision had been overturned by the Chancellor. Such dialogue would have offered an entry point for generating understanding and collaboration.

The "stay as one voice" counsel also goes against the idea of communication as reflection, which places emphasis on the organization examining what is really going on, and then acting in ways that are truthful and responsible. Because of its emphasis on one-way messaging, the "stay as one voice" strategy does not go a long way toward building trust as it comes across as manipulative, suggesting a tested technique of getting through a crisis, irrespective of what actually took place. It also does not suggest a sense of ownership on behalf of the organization or an openness to make amendments.

Most importantly, the "stay as one voice" strategy addresses communication as a superficial tactic rather than pushing the organization to carefully consider its practices, examine the ethics (or lack of it), and then develop ways of corrective action.

Because Edelman positions itself as leading the communication industry conversation on engagement, I am perplexed that the advise from Edelman to Professor Wise and her team was to stick to one voice rather than to make communication processes transparent and accountable, two elements that seem to resonate through a variety of public positions offered by Edelman in its leadership role.

Amid the conversations Edelman seeks to lead on communication and transparency, what I find surprising is that the University acted in most unethical ways with the Edelman counsel to guide it. For instance, Why didn't Edelman advise Wise to communicate openly and transparently? Why didn't Edelman advise Wise to open up the space of dialogue with key stakeholders? Why didn't Edelman advise Wise to not follow strategies of covering up and manipulating information? Why didn't Edelman advise Wise and the BoT on the nuts and bolts of communication ethics? If Edelman didn't do any of these things, its own credibility as a communication organization is in question. Going forward, I would have little to trust Edelman in because it reveals an essentially untrustworthy character.

Now it is of course entirely possible that Edelman was indeed offering the counsel to the University to render its communication processes transparent and accountable. Perhaps, Edelman was indeed telling the University leadership to participate in ethical communication. If Edelman indeed had offered the counsel and Illinois did not take it, I would have doubts about the effectiveness of Edelman as a communication organization. In such an instance, the Illinois case would stand in as an exemplar of PR counsel ineffectiveness.

I am also left wondering whether Edelman was brought in to protect the University or particular actors in the leadership. Who brought in Edelman? Who recommended Edelman? Under what basis did the University decide to go with Edelman?

More fundamentally, I am left wondering: Why does a University need a PR firm rather than simply communictaing openly and transparent? How can the expenditure of University money be justified to hire a PR firm?

To the extent that University funds were spent to hire Edelman, all Illinois communication with Edelman should be made public.

We will not know the answer to these questions I have raised until further FOI requests specifically on communication with Edelman render visible the exact set of decisions that were made and the specific counsel that Edelman offered the Illinois administration.

In the meanwhile, I am struck by the corporate nature of the Illinois decision. Universities, especially Universities such as Illinois, are spaces of learning. Firms such as Edelman who manage communication and do so superficially, have no space in Universities as their treatment of communication is superficial, at the tactical level. For Illinois to address the communication crisis brought on by the Salaita affair, it has to reflect on its own behaviors, the high handedness of decision making, and the unethical ways in which these decisions were made. The answer to the Illinois problem is not outside in a Communication Company but inside within its own spaces, in reflections on its own practices and in renewed examination of its structures with the sort of integrity that academics are held in high grounds for.


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