two roads diverged in a yellow wood; i took the one more honest.

I had an opportunity to score my college some major publicity earlier this week. All I would have had to do was misrepresent our institution and betray all my moral bearings.

Came back from lunch on Monday to a voicemail from a reporter at TheStreet.com. The popular financial Web site does series on hidden gems in higher ed, and wanted to profile our liberal arts school, the reporter said. Called her back and thought it sounded great. Then she emailed questions and it seemed like a case of mistaken identity.

She wanted to profile an institution that was exclusively liberal arts. We have a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is what I thought she meant, but it’s just one of four schools in our comprehensive college. Without getting too deep into what that all means, essentially continuing to tell her we were the small liberal arts school she thought she wanted would have been a lie. It seemed like these were my two choices:

1) Misrepresent the school and fudge numbers, with the possibility of compromising my (and our) credibility
2) Come clean that this was not the droid she was looking for

I called her back and in the ensuing conversation realized she indeed had the wrong SUNY school. Turns out she had mistaken Oswego for Geneseo, which is indeed the liberal arts-type college she was seeking. She thanked me for the honesty and said I was welcome to pitch her stories any time. Which may or may not mean anything, but it’s also worth noting if I presented our school as something it wasn’t, many of the other 63 schools in the SUNY system would not be very happy with us either. Each college has its own unique fingerprint, and recruiting students under a lie would be very misleading and unwelcome.

The field of public relations often gets a bad rap as the province of slick snake-oil salesmen. But I’d like to think that, faced with similar choices, most college PR pros would make a similar decision. I could have called the Geneseovians and let them know what happened, but I didn’t want to seek out gratitude for merely doing the right thing. Besides, if our men’s hockey team beats theirs on Saturday — an honest win, if you will — that would be plenty good enough.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “two roads diverged in a yellow wood; i took the one more honest.

  1. I’m with you on this one. There’s too much at stake — for your institution, for your reputation, for your personal integrity — to misrepresent.

    But your “not the droids you’re looking for” reference threw me. Isn’t that a Jedi mind trick, and wasn’t that a disingenuous act on Obi-Wan’s part?

  2. When we win on Saturday, all credit will go to the good karma you brought.

  3. Agreed. I’d like to think that this is what any higher ed PR person would do.

    I think there’s another message in here, too. She said you were welcome to pitch her anytime. I think she’s just as likely to come back to you. This ties in with Dave Winer’s mantra about Web sites: “People come back to places that send them away.” If I can’t help a reporter with someone from my institution, I always try to recommend someone elsewhere, especially if I know the reporter’s on deadline. Call it good karma or paying it forward, I think it’s just a good way to build a relationship with a reporter.

  4. insidetimshead

    ANDREW: Agreed. In marketing speak, it’s too important to our brand integrity. In common terms, we need to be trustworthy, period. And the “droid” like was an inside joke thing. An insidetimshead inside joke.

    VOTL: Success! Though Geneseo’s lack of offense may have had a lot to do with it.

    JOE: Good call on referring reports to other institutions. Not every director of PR is cool with this, but I figure there’s a kind of kinship. Similarly, much of what I know from Web higher ed is thanks to the kindness and insight of folks from other colleges.

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