Commentary: FAU’s Media Relations gives student magazine the run-around

Ryan Cortes

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Ryan Cortes, Editor-in-Chief

There’s a lot I want to tell you, I just can’t. FAU’s Media Relations department doesn’t seem like they want me to.

They’re in charge of making the university look good, but they’ve become so concerned with avoiding bad news they don’t know what good news is anymore.

That stinks for you, loyal reader. We wanted to tell you about Disability Awareness Month and Pepper coming to Homecoming — you know, hard-hitting journalism, baby.

Hell, just last week, one of my reporters was working on a story about this year’s Homecoming Court.

She asked Alicia Keating, the director of student involvement, for the contact information of the candidates.

Keating emailed back:

“I need to ask you to submit a Public Records request to Media Relations to get the contact information of the students who are on the Homecoming Court.”

Why?

“I was directed to tell her to do a Public Records request since it is related to student contact information. If that is incorrect, I just need to know and can provide the information to the UP.”

Mind you, she doesn’t even work in Media Relations. I wonder who told her.

I understand why the PR team is paranoid (remember this, anyone?), but in the last week, they’ve deprived someone else of valuable news.

You.

What happened:

Alicia Keating, Director of Student Involvement. Photo courtesy of FAU


Exhibit A — Oct. 9: The band Pepper is set to play FAU’s Homecoming concert this year, and a UP reporter is trying to find out the cost of bringing them. Our reporter is talking to Keating about it. Remember a few months back when we told you how much The Misfits cost to visit FAU? Mike Burdman, Student Government’s coordinator, told us the cost without a public records request. Apparently, that’s changed. Keating says a public records request must be filed.

(11:32 a.m.) A public records request is sent to Chris Stotz, the assistant director of Media Relations.

Stotz says the public records request should be sent to Dawn Howard, the director of communications for Student Affairs.

(11:44 a.m.) A public records request is sent to Howard.

Howard says the public records request should be sent to Scott Silversten, the VP of communications.

(11:47 a.m.) A public records request is sent to Silversten.

(Oct 10. 3:47 p.m.) Silversten emailed saying the request was being “reviewed.” Twelve minutes later, I asked what exactly that meant.

No answer.


Exhibit B — Oct. 10: Another UP staffer is working on a story, this one about Disability Awareness Month at FAU. She wants an interview with Ed Rowe, the associate director of equal opportunities. He agrees to do it. Just before lunch, Rowe calls to inform that he’s going to eat and will be back in 30 minutes in his office. Upon arriving a half-hour later, Rowe’s tune had changed. He said he wasn’t allowed to do the interview without a Media Relations presence, calling it a “new protocol.”

At 4:01 p.m., the reporter emails Chris Stotz, asking to set-up an interview with Rowe. An hour later, he replies:

“You can contact Ed Rowe, associate director of the equal opportunity programs office, directly to schedule an interview.”

Well, this is awkward.


Exhibit C — Oct. 8: An editor is working on a story about traffic incidents at FAU and requests four months worth of traffic reports. Nancy Brecht, the records coordinator for FAU PD, emails back saying, among other things, “crash reports which occurred in the last 60 days are not able to be released.”

When asked why, Brecht cites Florida Statute 316.066 Section 3(d), which says in the 60 days following a crash, a person must show a valid driver’s license or photo I.D. that “demonstrates his or her qualifications to access that information” and not use it for solicitation.

The section immediately following it: “This subsection does not prevent the dissemination or publication of news to the general public by any legitimate media entitled to access confidential and exempt information pursuant to this section.”

Section A says that crashes revealing personal information can’t be disseminated for 60 days. Section B, however, says the reports can be immediately released to a select group, including the parties involved in the crash, their legal representatives, and “free newspapers of general circulation, published once a week or more often, available and of interest to the public generally for the dissemination of news.”

Let’s see. Free? Check. Published once a week? Check. Available and of interest to the public? Hey, stop laughing.

Brecht was emailed back those statutes and asked for a reason why the UP didn’t fit the bill.

No answer.

Scott Silversten, VP of Communications. Photo courtesy of FAU


The aftermath:

This morning I met with Scott Silversten and Chris Stotz. They asked to meet to “clear up any confusion” we had. We started talking. Until I got confused again.

Some highlights from our chat:

Silversten, on Pepper: “We all looked at the [Pepper] contract and decided to turn it over to legal. There was a contract in place, so we needed to be sure.”

Why didn’t other concerts and events (all with contracts) need a public records request to see the cost?

Silversten: [long pause] “Because all contracts are different.”

I’m confused.

Chris Stotz, Assistant Director of Media Relations. Photo courtesy of FAU

Silversten, on Ed Rowe: “He can do an interview if he wants to. What we would tell Ed [Rowe] is, if he receives an interview request to contact Media Relations. It’s just good process from a media relations standpoint. Some people aren’t comfortable doing interviews.”

Then why did Rowe say there was a “new protocol” that didn’t allow him to talk without Media Relations being there?

Silversten: “I don’t know who told him that, but I would advise anybody to not talk to the media before contacting Media Relations.”

But that’s not what your policy says.

Silversten: “I think you’re confusing policy and process.”

I’m confused.

Silversten, on why we hadn’t heard anything from him about our records requests: “I don’t operate on a deadline. We’re doing our absolute darndest to get what you need, but I don’t care if it’s 24 hours later, 48 hours later — sometimes, we’re just not able to get to it and it’s a missed opportunity, even if it’s a good story.”

[30 seconds later]

Silversten: “I will tell you … if you go out and write a story that’s extremely negative about our area, I’ll be pretty disappointed.”

I’m confused.


The explanation:

Dawn Howard, Director of Communications for Student Affairs.  Photo courtesy of FAU

This still leaves too many questions.

I’ve been interviewing people for the UP in some capacity since October 2010 and I’ve never been asked for so many public records requests and contradictory answers from the people in charge of making this, you know, easier.

Is it a new policy? Is it old? And how does this help — anybody?

Even now, FAU’s answer to that question doesn’t add up. Dawn Howard mentioned that she was just following policy, the same one that’s been in place for years, but that doesn’t explain how multiple people claim to be “just following policy” — by all giving different instructions.

At best, they don’t understand their own policy, and at worst, they’re making it up as they go along.

The very first line from FAU’s official version:

1. Personnel in all departments and areas should feel free to respond to questions posed by the media concerning their departments or areas. If they are concerned about speaking with the media or with formulating a response, they should contact Media Relations for assistance.

Scroll to the procedures section and — oh, it gets better:

A. When approached by a representative from the press, the following guidelines apply:

1. If the issue relates to one’s own area of expertise, one should feel free to respond. Responses to media inquiries should occur in a timely fashion.

Hold on. Time to request an interview with Dawn Howard through Dawn Howard.