PR, free speech entangled

University Relations works as a central point from which the U’s information flows.

Hayley Odom

As the role of public relations at universities increases, free speech could suffer, critics said.

“Free speech is always a messy issue,” said Charles Samuelson, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union director.

As a public institution, the University is obligated to make sure all information is readily available to the public.

The University Relations office works as a central point from which information flows in and out of the University.

Whether the information is incoming or outgoing, the department acts as a liaison between the public and the media.

With a substantial amount of information being handled by one office, the question is raised whether the public truly has access to unfiltered, unbiased information.

“The job of the public relations expert or staff is to put the university in a positive light and minimize the negative information that goes out,” said Clara Lovett, president of the American Association for Higher Education.

Samuelson said he can see the potential for a large institution such as the University to limit free speech through a public relations department.

There is a fine line between mandating that media requests go through a public relations department and suggesting it, Samuelson said.

“It’s all about control,” he said. “It’s human nature for those in authority to want to control information. The bad thing is if (going through a public relations department) is required,” he said, “then there can be a problem with freedom of speech.”

The department does not require any student, faculty or staff member to use their services. But in a single day the office fields between 10 and 30 media requests that might paint the University in both flattering and unflattering light.

Amy Phenix, the office’s director, said it is important not to confuse University Relations with a corporate public relations department that has more of an interest in withholding bad publicity.

“The University and this office would never censor anyone’s opinion or voice. We’re not trying to sell a product,” she said. “Freedom of information is one of the highest values a public institution can hold. We’re not gatekeepers, we’re facilitators.”

Lovett said public relations in higher education institutions have increased during the last 10 years, especially in the last three to five.

But she said the Freedom of Information Act keeps a public institution from wanting to hold back or distort information.

Public relations grows

The College of Liberal Arts recently reported there are 282 students enrolled in the combined public relations and advertising program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Since 2001, the ratio between the professional journalism program and the public relations and advertising program were about equal, said Dan Wackman, a professor and director of undergraduate studies for the school.

But this semester, 60 percent of journalism students are enrolled in public relations and advertising and 40 percent are professional journalism students, Wackman said.

Chris Iles, a public relations senior, said he decided to study public relations because he finds “the invisible hand of the media” fascinating, and because his field has the ability to affect what goes into the media. He also said he did not find First Amendment issues pertaining to public relations a problem.

“I don’t see as many issues with the First Amendment as I do with commercial speech. You have to be really careful of what you say and back everything up because commercial speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment,” he said.

Strategic communications professor Brian Southwell said the University plays a large role in shaping public relations because of the way the program educates students.

When applying public relations theory to the University, Southwell said he had never felt any pressure from University Relations regarding his rights to free speech and said he did not feel limited on what he could say at the University.

“It makes sense from (the University’s) standpoint that there are people (in University Relations) who have dedicated their time to make sure publics and institutions are on the same page,” he said.

Other universities

Tysen Kendig, news bureau manager for the Public Information Office at Penn State University, said most media relations departments at public universities around the country have not had a chance to grow because of budget problems.

“We have managed to maintain pretty constant employment numbers in the communications field,” Kendig said. “I haven’t seen any dramatic growth.”

Kendig said Penn State has a centralized media relations department, but several departments and colleges within their universities have smaller communications departments.

Amy Toburen, University of Wisconsin-Madison communications director, said her department functions the same way.