Florida A&M University is launching a million-dollar campaign to repair its image after months of bad headlines. The school is weathering several crises starting with the hazing death of a band drum major, audit issues, and low graduation rates.
FAMU spokeswoman Sharon Saunders says the million-dollar campaign is aimed at getting the “good news” about FAMU out to the public. She says her current staff is too small, and has been so overwhelmed with media requests, that it’s left little time for anything else.
“We have two staff members, two full time staff members, and we’ve hired two people part time. But the demands for filling the public records requests are so great that it’s filling most of our time," Saunders told university Trustees Wednesday in a presentation.
Many of those requests are part of the fallout from the hazing death of band drum major Robert Champion. The incident resurfaced a history of hazing in FAMU’s famed Marching 100 band. Still FAMU board member Rufus Montgomery, one of the main critics of the administration, says more timely responses to media requests would go a long way in repairing the school’s image.
“When we clear up the log-jam with the public records requests, it’s actually a positive when FAMU responds in a timely manner to media requests. That way, we’re telling our story, instead of delaying responses and having others tell the story, without having input from us," Rufus said.
FAMU has been widely criticized by media outlets for its slow responses to inquiries and public records requests. Shortly after Champion’s death, FAMU hired a crisis management firm. For $130,000, the New-York based DKC Public Relations group has been helping FAMU craft its messages to the public. That includes getting national media outlets in touch with school administrators, crafting statements, press releases and talking points, and developing the school’s anti-hazing plan. Whether the efforts have been successful are up for debate. DKC would not speak on the record about its services, but confirmed that it has been involved in the school’s messaging. DKC works largely with FAMU’s board of trustees, but even some of them had questions:
“Don’t we have DKC on pay until 2013 and what is their role? Unless I’m confused, I thought they were supposed to help with the image of the university?” Board member Naryan Persaud questioned Saunders about the school's contract wit the firm.
Saunders says DKC deals mostly with crisis management. FAMU’s communications plan calls for 75-percent of the money to be spent on direct advertising—through newspaper, television and other sources. $160 thousand would be outsourced to fund video marketing projects. DKC does not provide those services. Board members largely expressed support for the school’s communications plan, but questioned the timing of it due to ongoing investigations. Board member and former state lawmaker Marjorie Turnbull says the board just wants to make sure it can justify the expense to the public:
“I think what I’m hearing from my fellow trustees is a concern that the money we’re appropriating, that It be carefully vetted to make sure we need the full million.”
FAMU Trustees approved the million dollar request but want more details on when it will start. FAMU is trying to grow its student enrollment and officials are concerned that the negative headlines over the past few months will keep potential students away. Those students are the primary source of funding for the university and so far, enrollment for the upcoming year is down.