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
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.