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A Public Relations lesson for the Capstone

Wesley Vaughn

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As a public relations major, I feel it necessary to inform the Capstone about the purpose and practice of proper public relations in light of the University’s recent decisions regarding its legally questionable use of FERPA, President Witt’s cookie-cutter racial incident email and any other passive maneuvering in recent history.

The Office of University Relations handles public relations for the University, and its goals are listed on its website’s home page.

Here are the two that stood out for me:

  • “To strengthen the sense of community, connection and loyalty between UA and its key stakeholders.”
  • “To increase the value that key stakeholders place on the ways UA fulfills its mission of teaching, research and service.”

Those sound pretty great, right? Assuming that students do count as “key stakeholders,” that is. If not, the University’s lack of student acknowledgement makes absolute sense.

As administrators love to say, though, it’s like this everywhere. To prove them wrong, I set out to find a higher education institution that strived to involve students as much as possible. The rampant cynicism on campus led me to believe that I would have to scour the entire country for just one school that fulfills my insatiable optimism.

Capstonians, I am glad to report that I found such a place. Thousands and thousands of feet away from the University of Alabama sits Birmingham-Southern College, our state’s proverbial and literal college on a hilltop.

In a letter to Inside Higher Ed, BSC’s president wrote, Caring for students, faculty, staff, and alumni cannot be simply sending out monthly missives on the state of the college or university.”

But, BSC is still licking its wounds after an embarrassing and costly financial crisis. There is no way its president has enough time to actually show he cares. Let me guess, he walks around campus and talks to everyone? Fat chance.

He continued, “I spend at least two hours a day walking the campus, visiting classrooms, eating in the cafeteria, attending sports practices and events, and simply talking to students, faculty, and staff.”

Excuse me as I eat crow. This guy must be some radical hippie taking over a distressed liberal arts college, right?

Wrong. Gen. Charles Krulak, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was named president of the college this past March.

I know that Krulak is still in his honeymoon period, and I know that Birmingham-Southern was looking for anyone to lift it out of its sorrow, but until his hiring afterglow wears off, we won’t know how successful he is in upholding his promises.

I’m not even asking for or expecting that degree of commitment. I’m asking for actions beyond failed meetings with fraternity presidents, temporary discussions with campus leaders and manhandling of the student government.

For his relative inexperience, Krulak recognized a PR problem and has sought to mend it. He may fall short of the lofty expectations he has erected, but at least he set out lofty expectations in the first place. Even if he fails, he should gain the respect of students on the way. He has already attracted rave reviews in the BSC student newspaper.

I have to assume that is one of the ultimate goals of all university presidents – unless, of course, a university president disparages the student newspaper and refuses to meet with its editors. Good call, President Witt and media relations. Because, as no PR professionals or textbooks will tell you, all good PR campaigns are run without the help of media outlets.

Although irritated students will graduate, their opinions will not. Until the administration and university relations accept their PR mistakes, one of the top PR programs in the nation will ironically sit a block away. Wesley Vaughn is a senior majoring in public relations and political science. His column runs on Wednesday. 

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A Public Relations lesson for the Capstone