It was an event that would change her job forever, but Christine LaPaille almost didn't get to see it.
The VP of university relations at George Mason University (GMU) had joined the school in May 2005, lured by the opportunity to restructure its communications department. Before she could see that change through unencumbered, the school's basketball team threw a wrench into her plans with its improbable run to the NCAA Final Four, winning the hearts of a nation along the way.
"I was visiting my sister in Boulder, CO, [when the team was playing its first game] and I thought, 'I should be watching this,'" LaPaille says. But the game was not being broadcast locally on CBS. So LaPaille's sister got on the phone and pleaded for the cable operator to rush delivery of the full-coverage package.
"I probably owe her money for that," she says with a laugh.
What also proved valuable was LaPaille's vast experience with high-pressure, unexpected situations. LaPaille ran her own public policy and issues management firm, Agenda Communications, for 10 years. She later had a five-year stint as communications director at the National Governors Association (NGA). When she joined GMU, she was virtually unaware of the school. But like the NGA, GMU offered her a chance to revamp a communications staff, a task she relishes.
“My first impression was that she knows her stuff, she’s talented, and she can take this place where we need to go,” says Sandra Hubler, VP of university life.
John Blacksten, the NGA's press secretary who LaPaille hired in 2002, calls her a "change agent," while praising her flexibility.
“She brought the office of public affairs, which was more of an editing shop, into a true media relations operation,” Blacksten says. “It was obvious to me that she had been the president of a PR firm. She was aware of everything in the office and knew when to touch base, while giving her staff the latitude to do their jobs.”
He praises her ability to take an opportunity and create the best event around it.
"Running her own PR agency and working at the NGA, she had to be ready for anything," Blacksten says. "This was a crisis opportunity. Who thought GMU would go to the Final Four?"
GMU's unexpected success on the court didn't just serve as a crisis of riches. The media attention also dredged up the dreaded C-word: commuter school. Unbeknownst to the sports reporters, who love a great underdog story, GMU is actually the largest university in Virginia and has made significant dormitory additions over the past couple of years.
“Part of the challenge was the ‘commuter school’ [designation] continued to linger,” LaPaille says. “Folks wrote the stories using this old recollection, so we swung into action and corrected the misconception.”
Under LaPaille's lead, the communications department issued fact sheets to every reporter who wrote "commuter school" in their stories. From that first victory on, the environment was frenetic.
"The media relations people had never been pushed like this," LaPaille says. "Having the agency experience - [and being] used to cranking stuff out in a day - I understood what had to be done."
“She’s an empowering person,” Hubler says. “She brought her team together and helped them parcel out [the duties] into a manageable effort.”
As the wins mounted, so did the PR costs.
“We were spending money [to ensure] we were doing things properly,” LaPaille recalls. “It was a learning experience, even for me. We managed the wave of positive publicity as much as you would a crisis.”
She also realized after the first victory that she needed to be on-site for any subsequent games.
"Other schools probably didn't have their VP of university relations on-site [working], but the feeling was that we had to be there simply just to help," LaPaille says.
"I booked [university president Alan Merten] on a solid three days of interviews," she adds. "We got an amazing response."
“She made sure [Merten] was talking to the media,” Blacksten says.
LaPaille is quick to give others credit, too. She has high praise for Jim Larranaga, the team's loquacious head coach, whose quoting of Aristotle - "Excellence is not a singular act, it's a habit" - has become a rallying cry for the entire university. GMU plans to use it for its Web site, fact sheets, and admissions materials.
“Coach Larranaga delivered key messages and was a wonderful brand ambassador,” LaPaille says.
Making her most proud was the host of compliments from media and Final Four security detail, who deemed the basketball team well-mannered and behaved.
“It was such a good story… with very well-behaved young men,” LaPaille says. “People sensed that; you can’t spin that.”
And now that the school has the media's ear, LaPaille is armed with a lot of talking points about its academic accomplishments. Those include a $25 million grant awarded to build a biological containment laboratory.
"When the media relations team calls an LA Times reporter, we don't have to explain [who we are]," LaPaille says proudly. “We can say GMU, and people answer the phone. There’s no need for them to worry about coming here” and having to explain the university.
The communications department is also working on a campaign for next year where they will harness the stored energy from the Final Four bid to teach students how to be better fans.
“We think we’re going to have more students for the games,” LaPaille says, discussing how it would distribute a fan kit with make-up and wigs. “Many of the kids have never done this before. They would start to a cheer and it would peter out. We need to teach them the fight song.”
The university has also assembled a task force “Operation Legacy,” where LaPaille and Hubler meet with the SVP of operations, the administration, and athletic directors every three weeks to ensure the opportunity isn’t squandered.
Among the goals is better cohesion with the athletic department.
“We’re really making an effort to pull together,” LaPaille says, adding that they’re getting their merchandising strategy in shape. By the end of the tournament, LaPaille says they simply ran out of merchandise while demand continued.
LaPaille says that even the NCAA is getting involved, asking the university to provide it with admissions data to see if there is an increase correlated with the Final Four run.
She reports that 1,000 more alumni signed up to be on GMU's e-mail list, the school has seen a "huge spike in admissions," and season-ticket sales are up 20% for next year. GMU indeed has many reasons to smile, not least of which is LaPaille's proven ability to take the ball and run with it.
May 2005- present
George Mason University, VP of university relations
January 2000-May 2005
National Governors Assoc., director of communications
Agenda Communications, founder and president