This Week in Bad PR

This Week in Bad PR: Pepper Spray and Deception

This week we find a rare doubling-down on poor PR decisions...

Our weekly delve into poor PR decisions requires a trip into our wayback machine, this time back to 2011. We all remember the image of a UC Davis police officer pepper spraying peacefully protesting students, later resulting in a $1 million settlement.

Photo Credit: NBC News

Those students looked threatening to that officer apparently.  

But our story takes another turn this week, as The Sacramento Bee uncovered documents showing that UC Davis spent a whopping $175,000 on contracted services to remove negative search results stemming from the pepper spray incident.

It should be noted that UC Davis is a taxpayer funded institution, and the campaign to remove negative search engine results was wildly unsuccessful.

We can all understand that a public institution like UC Davis would like to put the incident behind them, and hiring an outside consultant to help with that initiative is not an unlikely scenario.

However, to assume that an incredibly public incident could be scrubbed off of the internet just goes to show how out of touch the officials at UC Davis actually are. Sure, a firm could mitigate the first couple of incredibly negative results on a search engine, but anyone with the ability to click “next page” on Google would be able to find thousands of more results.

Online reputation-management services are a growing field, largely dependent on the end user not having a solid grasp on how the internet works.

How this could have been avoided: For starters, don’t pepper spray students who are peacefully protesting. Wild idea, I know. However, the doubling-down of a poor communication strategy, paying exorbitant fees for an otherwise ineffective reputation-management campaign with taxpayer dollars is the PR mistake here. In order to avoid a highlight in our weekly column, UC Davis should have owned up to the mistake, rather than wasting public money on a something that was doomed from the start.

Sometimes reputation-management services can work, but not when the national media is involved. The internet is too vast for any scrubbing to be effective, and be damned sure you don’t use taxpayer money when you want to burn a cool $175,000 on such a questionable strategy.

The point is, when you make one poor decision, don’t try to stick your head in the sand and act like it never happened. Sand in your eyes can hurt just as bad as pepper spray.

  • Casey Whittington