UNC’s communications director is leaving. Here’s some serious advice for the next one

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In 2013, I attended a reception for Joel Curran, the newly hired vice chancellor for communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Then-Chancellor Carol Folt created the position and brought in Curran, a UNC grad and an accomplished corporate public relations professional, in the midst of negative coverage related to the university’s ballooning academic-athletics scandal.

One thing I recall from the event was that Curran asked me and others: “What should I do?” That was flattering, refreshingly humble and evidence of the new man’s PR savvy. I remember the question more than my reply, but I like to think I told him to tell the truth and that the rest would take care of itself.

Curran took a more complicated approach. He focused on messaging. He expanded the university’s communications staff, oversaw public records requests, boosted UNC’s social media profile and advised Folt, and now Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, on what to say – or not say – all for a handsome salary of $359,000. Indeed, Curran got so busy that in 2017 Folt brought in Clayton Somers, state House Speaker Tim Moore’s former chief of staff, to be vice chancellor for public affairs at $342,000 annually.

All that channeling, controlling and parsing coincided with perhaps the worst run of publicity in UNC-CH’s history. The academic-athletic scandal ended with a controversial NCAA ruling that wrongs indeed occurred, but that the offenses were outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction. Then there was the fiasco over removing the Confederate statue Silent Sam, Folt’s resignation, last fall’s troubled opening and closing of the campus as COVID infections soared and the uproar over the aborted hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Money can’t buy happiness or, it appears, positive coverage. But money can buy money. Curran’s ability to sell the university’s academic and research accomplishments has helped UNC-CH raise $3.9 billion toward its $4.25 billion capital campaign goal.

That bulging dollar amount likely caught the attention of the leaders at Notre Dame, who announced last week that Curran will be that university’s new vice president for public affairs and communications. When a university can raise billions amid a blizzard of bad news, someone is accentuating the positive.

Now UNC-CH is looking for a new person to shape the way it communicates. Whoever takes the job is unlikely to ask me the same question Curran did, but here’s an answer anyway.

Remember what UNC-CH administrators habitually forget: They work for the public.

Answer public record requests promptly. It’s not just polite, it’s the law.

Don’t see everything through the prism of public relations. Delaying information, resisting disclosures, denying problems and insisting all is well has only made bad news worse in Chapel Hill.

Level with the public. Deb Aikat, a longtime faculty member at UNC-CH’s Journalism School told me that during the Silent Sam controversy, the university “did not perform well. It was basically suppressing information instead of sharing information.”

Level with the faculty. Denying problems – such as the spread of COVID on campus – is happy talk that the faculty refers to as being “toxically positive.” Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-CH faculty, told me, “There’s a sense that if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. We only talk about the good things, rather than naming the actual problem.”

Chapman acknowledged that running a large research university can be “like a big business,” but she added that a university should value collaboration and be open about its decisions. “It’s not a corporate culture and in some ways communications have to reflect that.” Instead, she said, the faculty has felt like “a constituency to be spun rather than a partner.”

That’s a longer answer than I gave Curran eight years ago. But unfortunately for the university’s image – and its image-makers – there has been a lot more to talk about since then.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ news observer.com

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