Public-relations experts believe that when people in the spotlight screw up, they're usually better off admitting the mistake, expressing regret and then hoping for a change of subject. So when Ray Gomez, the associate vice president for university communications at CU-Boulder, learned that an e-mail in which he'd criticized a Boulder Daily Camera journalist had accidentally been forwarded to the reporter herself, he immediately went into full contrition mode. And he's been there ever since.
"There was absolutely no reason this should have happened," he concedes. "It was inexcusable, unprofessional. I give myself an F.'"
When it comes to his department's response to this mini-tempest, however, Gomez, who began his job in December 2004, is a much more lenient grader. "I think we handled it," he says, "by getting the bad news out."
The folks at CU have had plenty of practice at that. Sleepovers at Michael Jackson's house probably spawned more negative coverage than the school has of late, but not by much. In the introduction to a draft report about rebranding the university that was given to CU regents earlier this month, Gomez and fellow newbie Michael Hesse, the associate vice president for university advancement, offered an extraordinary list of seventeen major crises that bubbled up just during their first three months on the job. Among them were the resignations of athletic director Dick Tharp, chancellor Richard Byyny and president Betsy Hoffman; the fallout from the controversy over professor Ward Churchill; a state audit of the CU Foundation, a fundraising arm of the university; a clumsily handled request for a tuition increase; and myriad flare-ups over charges of sexual assault and impropriety linked to CU's football program, including placekicker Katie Hnida's appearance on the Today show, where she accused an unnamed player of rape.
Gomez admits that he wasn't fully prepared for this relentless chain of events. Indeed, he recalls that upon learning about the CU position, "I thought, 'This sounds like a lot of fun.'" Unfortunately for him, laughs have been few and far between, and he now realizes that "this media market is every bit as intense and aggressive as the L.A. media market" in which he previously toiled. "I would say to anybody who's coming into this market from out of town, 'Don't underestimate it,' because it's a handful.'"
Denver and Boulder shouldn't have been a mystery to Gomez, because he's spent much of his 26-year PR career here. A graduate of Western New Mexico University, located in his hometown of Silver City, he won a PR internship at an IBM office in Boulder that led to full-time employment with a now-defunct Denver firm, William Kostka & Associates, and subsequent communications positions with Public Service of Colorado and the Johns Manville Corporation. In 1990, he traded in Colorado for Akron, Ohio, after being hired by B.F. Goodrich, and he had stints with Ameritech in Chicago and Rockwell Aerospace in California, too. But local newspaper accounts have focused more on his 1998-2002 run with the Walt Disney Company, where, among other things, he oversaw guest relations at the outfit's SoCal theme parks. "I don't know if it's unfair" that CU critics have used the Disney name to make him seem Mickey Mouse, he says, "but I sometimes get a little frustrated that my other experiences are ignored." In fact, Gomez left Disney on his own and was running a start-up consulting business when his mother, a communications professor on CU's Colorado Springs campus, told him about the university-communications opening, which paid a hefty $150,000 per annum.
The institutional relations office Gomez joined had earned a reputation for stonewalling, obstructionism and downright incompetence for a multitude of reasons, at least one of which was tragic. Because Gomez's predecessor, Bob Nero, was frequently absent or incapacitated owing to his battle against pancreatic cancer (which he lost last year), the department seemed unprepared to deal with disasters, repeatedly reacting in ill-advised, knee-jerk fashion. In the aforementioned draft report, authors Gomez and Hesse admitted that the university exhibited "a hostile and defensive attitude when dealing with news media." But they also cited "a near-obsessive news media climate in which the destruction of the University's reputation appeared to be the main goal."
In a June 14 item, Rocky Mountain News editorial page editor Vince Carroll scoffed at that theory, writing, "Most journalists have no axe to grind with higher education, let alone with the state's flagship research university." This argument would have been a lot more persuasive had the Rocky not just completed an unconscionably drawn-out and redundant five-part series on Churchill, whom the paper's been skewering for months. Then again, accusing journalists of wanting to permanently wipe out CU, when they're clearly piling it on in the usual fashion, seems notably paranoid. Nevertheless, Gomez emphasizes that "we didn't pull that out of the air. We talked to upwards of a hundred people: administrators, business leaders, faculty members, students, regents, legislators. And there was a common thread in more than half the discussions we had that the media was somehow out to get the university. That's a perception held by a lot of people, and we thought we needed to be candid about it."
In Gomez's view, shooting straight is the best way to alter the media's preconceptions about CU. Still, the university continues to send out mixed signals, as I learned this spring when I attempted to follow up on a column about CU professor Adrienne Anderson, who was told in February that her classes had been stricken from next year's schedule. After Anderson appealed this move in March, I contacted CU spokeswoman Pauline Hale and asked that she share the final decision in early May, when it was anticipated. She said she'd do so, but after I contacted her numerous times over several weeks, she finally wrote in a May 19 e-mail that she'd "recently been advised that the results of Adrienne Anderson's appeal would constitute a Œpersonnel matter' and therefore we will not be able to release information about it." To complicate matters further, Anderson won't divulge the fate of her appeal, either.
Is this an example of CU's new commitment to openness? Gomez won't comment on the exchange specifically, since Hale "doesn't work for me," but in general, he says, "we need to be much more forthcoming, and when we commit to getting a reporter information by a certain time, we ought to do that." By handling things "more quickly, more openly, and facilitating rather than barricading the information flow to the media," he believes that the university can re-establish an atmosphere of trust with the press.
The Camera contretemps hasn't helped matters. Scribe Elizabeth Mattern Clark, who covered the regents get-together at which the draft report was distributed, asked CU for a copy, but Gomez, who wasn't thrilled with Clark's story about the meeting, felt she should be given a "cleaned-up version" of the document, sans the introduction and summary. In a June 8 e-mail to Hesse discussing this strategy, he added, "As we saw last weekend, this reporter isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I agree with your recommendation yesterday that we walk her through this." Hesse then accidentally forwarded this exchange to Clark, and when she let him know what he'd done, he initially claimed the reporter in question wasn't her. For his part, Gomez says he learned what happened about an hour later and, "I called her immediately and said, ŒI understand there's some doubt about who it was about. The subject of the e-mail is you, and I want to apologize for having said that.'"
This "I'm sorry" didn't squelch the matter. The Camera detailed the incident in a June 9 article that spread from coast to coast after being linked on the nation's most widely read journalism website, found at www.Poynter.org, as well as in a column by the Camera's Clint Talbott (he railed about "lies and censorship") and another by editor Sue Deans (she called Gomez and Hesse "clowns"). Gomez isn't complaining, though. "I pretty much deserve everything I get," he says, "because it flies so counter to what we're trying to accomplish. All we can do now is to try and show our good intent."
In other words, he's going back to the PR rulebook. Better late than never.