Potomac answers call to tame Hillsdale PR anarchy

HILLSDALE, MI: Following a series of personal scandals that disgraced a once-proud institution, Hillsdale College has turned to PR to right its sinking ship.

HILLSDALE, MI: Following a series of personal scandals that disgraced a once-proud institution, Hillsdale College has turned to PR to right its sinking ship.

HILLSDALE, MI: Following a series of personal scandals that

disgraced a once-proud institution, Hillsdale College has turned to PR

to right its sinking ship.



The small liberal arts school, located near the Ohio/Indiana border in

south central Michigan, has hired Potomac Communications Group to help

with media relations in the wake of one of the biggest PR missteps to

hit a college in recent memory. Once heralded as a school that truly

’got’ PR, Hillsdale is now being held out as a prime example of how

quickly good PR can go bad.



In the 1970s, the college defied a government-mandated race and gender

affirmative action decree, which resulted in the loss of federal

scholarship funds. This open act of defiance won Hillsdale more than its

share of support from prominent boosters (including conservative pundit

William F. Buckley), which college president George Roche III parlayed

into a widely promoted public forum for conservative and libertarian

viewpoints, spread via an 890,000-strong mailing list.



In April, the 64-year-old Roche divorced his wife of 44 years, which was

viewed suspiciously on a campus where the messianic college president

was perceived as a symbol of righteousness. Later in the year, while his

former wife was reportedly suffering from liver cancer, Roche

remarried.



But the school’s PR minions refused to address any personal issues, a

move that they came to regret on October 17 when Roche’s daughter-in-law

committed suicide in the middle of the campus. The tragedy was soon

compounded by campus rumors about Roche’s relationship with the dead

woman (later all but confirmed by Roche’s son) and culminated in his

abrupt removal from official duties on November 1.



Up to this point, Hillsdale’s VP for external programs and

communications, Dr. Ronald Trowbridge, had been able to avoid media

interest beyond expressions of sorrow over the suicide. But on November

7, Michigan and Ohio newspapers - probably tipped by students whose

parents were journalists - began speculating in print about the

spreading scent of campus scandal.



At that point, Hillsdale’s tenuous PR collapsed. Trowbridge was ordered

to refer all media queries to the new acting president, Dr. Robert

Blackstock, who stonewalled most approaches (including several from

PRWeek). And it got worse: William Bennett, a former US Secretary of

Education and a Hillsdale supporter, announced he was resigning as head

of the search committee for a new president because he felt the

college’s public pronouncements on the crisis were not forthright.



While Hillsdale made a half-hearted attempt at damage control - sending

out copies of internal memos to its huge mailing list - PR anarchy still

reigns supreme. Potomac program director Frank Maisano said that

Hillsdale confirmed the scandal rumors, which seemed to contradict a

communique issued by the college a few days earlier, stating that only

Roche knew the truth.



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