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The old college spin

When a large company has to deal with events that might cast it in a negative light — outsourcing of jobs, embezzlement or bankruptcy to name a few — it's not uncommon for a public relations campaign to be mounted to minimize the damage to its image. Nor is it unusual for such "crisis" communications to extend to the Internet and for messages to be posted on talk boards, comment sections or blogs to help shape the public's view.

And yet it's difficult not to feel a twinge of disappointment at the news that the University of Maryland was engaged in just such an effort to minimize the public hostility that school officials knew would accompany their decision one year ago to join the Big Ten Conference. Somehow, one expects Maryland's flagship university to be more straightforward and direct — a place of knowledge and truthfulness and not "spin."

It's not clear whether anything strictly unethical has happened here. The school's code of conduct appears to be silent on matters of public relations technique. And a school official told The Sun's Jeff Barker that UM did not hire what one consultant referred to as the "special PR agencies who work in the digital space who bombard blogs and newspaper sites where no one puts their name."

Nor would we find fault that the school considered first leaking the news to Scott Van Pelt, the ESPN commentator, Maryland alumnus and unabashed school booster (although such handling of a major news story would probably not have endeared the school to the network's competitors). That's pretty conventional behavior — had the school chosen to go that route.

Rather, there's a nagging discomfort with the notion that such a prestigious institution where a distinguished faculty offer lessons on such lofty topics as the nature of existence, morality and religion, would not hold itself to a higher standard than to spend one nanosecond in the grubby business of "drop[ping] positive messages into the blogs," as an official described it.

It's one thing to post information, ideally with attribution, that might correct inaccuracies posted somewhere in cyberspace. It's another to misrepresent oneself as a cheering fan who supports the school's decision to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and just wants to talk it up. We'd like to know how much of UM's effort was the former and how much the latter.

The move to the Big Ten is probably the correct one for Maryland — as we noted at the time for various reasons — but this is just more evidence that the institution did not handle the decision particularly well. It was made abruptly and with little involvement with the faculty, students or other stakeholders. That such a secretive process was accompanied by a rather secretive PR campaign appears to be par for the course.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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