The Faculty Senate expressed concerns Thursday, Feb. 2, that a misinterpretation of a media policy — put in place by Webster University’s public relations department — could limit employee’s freedom to talk to the press.
“I think the main concern (at Faculty Senate) is that there is a perception that people can be fired if they speak to the press,” Keith Welsh, religious studies professor and faculty senator, said.
Faculty Senate saw the written policy for the first time at that meeting. Senators believed the policy was meant to be applied university-wide and include faculty. The Faculty Senate started drafting a resolution to suspend the policy until it could be further discussed with faculty.
Those concerns prompted Faculty Senate President Ralph Olliges to call a special senate meeting on Feb. 7. The senate invited Barbara O’Malley, associate vice president and chief communications officer, to discuss what’s called the “Public Relations Media Interaction Office Policy” with faculty. Ten of the 17 members of the senate attended, as did Provost and Senior Vice President Julian Schuster.
“We were assured that (people getting fired) was not going to be the case (and) that there was a misinterpretation of the Global Marketing Office (media) policy,” Welsh said. “Furthermore, we were assured that steps would be taken to clarify the policy to all the constituencies so this shouldn’t happen again.”
The media interaction policy is a written policy within the Global Marketing and Communications Public Relations office.
The policy, in part, states:
“To ensure accuracy of information and consistency of information presented to the media, Webster University has this process in place:
— If an administrator, faculty or staff member is contacted by the media, he/she is encouraged to direct that media inquiry directly to Public Relations. Public Relations will then either direct the request to the appropriate spokesperson or provide comment to the media.”
Gwyneth Williams, political science professor and Faculty senator, said Faculty Senate asked O’Malley to change the wording to more clearly express that the policy is an internal public relations document, not a university-wide policy.
The senate also asked O’Malley to add a non-retaliation clause.
“Retaliation against a member of the university community for speaking with the media will not be tolerated,” O’Malley said.
After a meeting on Feb. 7, the Faculty Senate tabled the resolution.
Confusion and Clarification
Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Ted Hoef said, usually, outside media requests go through the office of Public Affairs. He said in the past, he wouldn’t have considered sending student media to Public Affairs.
“In December, we learned that reporters should be going to the office of communications first to find out who are the right people to talk with,” Hoef said. “In a couple occasions, when reporters came to me about a story, I asked them to please contact Susan Kerth (interim director of Public Relations) and that office (public relations) first.”
Hoef said he shared what information he knew at staff meetings in all of the Student Affairs departments.
After reading the written policy the first week of February, Hoef asked his supervisor, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Paul Carney, for clarification. Hoef said he now understands the policy only suggests he send reporters to public relations if he doesn’t feel he is the appropriate source. He plans to communicate this clarification to all Student Affairs departments at their next staff meeting.
Courtney Turner, sophomore advertising and marketing major and Student Government Association (SGA) president, has worked in campus activities — a department under Student Affairs — since spring 2011. Turner said after winter break, campus activities held a meeting to inform employees of a new rule regarding the media.
“Since the new rule has been put in place through Campus Activities, I’ve been told that we can not give opinions about our jobs or anything of that sort,” Turner said. “We can talk about events but we can’t talk about our jobs.”
Turner said she thinks the policy could be clearer.
“I would hate to do something wrong by not knowing,” Turner said.
Turner added the policy hasn’t affected her yet because she hasn’t been asked about her job in an interview.
An Unwritten Understanding
Film and video professor Kathy Corley said she feels comfortable discussing topics such as the School of Communications (SOC), her creative work and being on the faculty for 26 years.
“No one has told me in 26 years that there is an official (media) policy,” Corley said. “To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen this document before.”
The document also reads:
— “If an administrator, faculty or staff member is contacted by the media and is already a noted expert with media contacts, they are encouraged to share information with the reporter and then call Public Relations and let them know of the interaction.
—Administrators, faculty and staff should not speak on behalf of the University regarding any current media stories unless the topic is clearly within their areas of administrative or academic expertise.”
Corley said the policy doesn’t appear to be different from how she has always handled the media. Corley said she wouldn’t want to discuss areas of Webster that she feels uninformed about with media.
Webster journalism professor Don Corrigan advised The Journal from 1978-2010. He said each university administration has its own attitude toward the student press.
In his 32 years as The Journal’s advisor, Corrigan said he never saw a written media policy. Corrigan said for the most part, Webster’s administration has been open and understanding over the years.
“I’ve always felt that Webster understood the role of a media advisor, and I’ve always also felt that they respected academic freedom,” Corrigan said. “I really don’t see that changing.”
Corrigan said he saw many student media advisors fired across the country, but he never worried about his job security at Webster.
“People need to have some understanding of what an advisor’s role is. It’s a tough road to walk because you want to empower students and you want them to have as much freedom to learn as possible,” Corrigan said. “That includes making mistakes and taking their lumps for making those mistakes. But not everybody sees that as an advisor’s role.”
President Beth Stroble said there is no policy that could take away someone’s right to free speech.
“We live in a democracy, clearly,” she said. “And, as I read the policy after I heard the concerns, I didn’t see anything in the wording of the policy that should be unclear about that.”
Williams said Schuster made it clear in the discussion with faculty that it, “was upsetting that there would be fear and wanted to clear that up.”
Williams said Schuster will also meet with Webster Staff Alliance (WSA) representatives to clarify the policy. She said Schuster made it clear that people have the right to speak, and to not speak, to the media.
O’Malley said she believes the policy will remain an internal Global Marketing and Communications Public Relation Office document. O’Malley said a protocol like this has probably always existed.
“It’s not like it’s anything totally new, so what I did was I just actually put it in writing,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley will attend the Faculty Assembly in the Library Conference room on Tuesday, Feb. 14, to address further concerns.
Click here to view other St. Louis-area schools’ media policies and protocols.