See Publisher’s note with update at the end of this post
For University of Maryland (UMD) public relations officials who’ve been buried beneath an avalanche of criticism of late, a story in Sunday’s Washington Post would appear to signal an intent to start digging out.
As regular readers of this blog know, University officials were beset by critics following the distribution of a news release featuring questionable claims — the most troubling of which is that a certain brand of chocolate milk improves the symptoms of concussions in student athletes.
Sunday’s Washington Post story, which features new information about a University review of that news release and the study that prompted it, seems to end the stonewalling of the news media who’ve been beseeching UMD to answer more questions about the investigation.
But as is often the case in these situations, the apparent good news of this release of information in fact only reinforces how poorly UMD has managed this case. The back story on this most recent disclosure raises new questions about the University’s commitment to conducting a thorough and transparent investigation.
Dr. Patrick O’Shea, vice president of research at Maryland, told the Post, “ . . . I value the information we give to the public.” Adding, “We have the public interest at heart . . . The public should be able to rely on what we say.”
In reality, what O’Shea has mainly been doing is dodging reporters’ expected questions and redirecting them to Crystal Brown, UMD’s chief communications officer, who has simply refused to give other reporters information which O’Shea ultimately gave to the Post.
This is a troubling strategy on O’Shea’s part, not only because of the favoritism it shows toward the Post. It’s troubling because O’Shea’s new disclosures barely scratch the surface of what the public can and should know — at this very moment — about the investigation of the chocolate milk study and news release that are at the heart of this controversy. While providing a gloss of new details (e.g. the investigation will happen “quickly”), the Post neglects most of the key issues that the University should be proactively addressing about how its review will be conducted.
We at HealthNewsReview.org had contacted O’Shea soon after we reviewed the University’s news release about the study. Andrew Holtz, one of the release’s initial reviewers, emailed O’Shea in late January and was referred to Brown who told him a “review” would be conducted but offered little more. Holtz blogged about his difficulty in gaining information here for HealthNewsReview.org.
I had contacted O’Shea about the same time, having dealt with similar cases at other universities, and posed similar questions. O’Shea emailed his phone numbers, asking me to call, and then reneged on his invitation when he was reminded I was asking as a reporter, not offering to consult.
Sarah Gantz of the Baltimore Business Journal, who wrote some of the best and earliest stories on this situation, repeatedly contacted Brown with questions for O’Shea but Brown failed to provide specific answers.
What’s puzzling about the University’s reaction in this case is that the questions we, and others, were asking didn’t involve revealing any secret information — no intellectual property that might justifiably remain confidential. Our questions involved the normal protections that the research process is supposed to assure prior to any studies being done. For instance:
And those are just the most pressing concerns. The list of questions that the university should be answering goes on quite a bit longer. What’s actually the timetable for the investigation (“quickly” doesn’t cut it)? Will the results of the review be made public? Why hasn’t the news release that sparked this fiasco been updated with a disclaimer on sites such as PR Newswire? (The release that’s hosted by the University now at least says, “This press release refers to study results that are preliminary and have not been subjected to the peer review scientific process.”)
The university’s silence on these questions has been deafening. In fact, three hours after the Washington Post published its latest piece on the controversy – including comments from O’Shea and others — Brown wrote me saying, “I don’t have any updates on this matter and will not have any details until the committee has completed their review. That process is underway.”
Aside from its earlier missteps in this episode, the University of Maryland has compounded its problem and made its goal of being trustworthy in the public’s eyes even more difficult. While reporters have been pressing the institution for weeks to be more forthcoming with information, it selectively chooses the Post, a “prestige” news media outlet, to release the latest information. In public relations circles, this strategy supposes that playing nice with the major media will net more sympathetic coverage in the long term.
Decades ago, when “news media” basically meant newspapers, magazines and a few broadcasters, this approach was widely used. But in today’s world, where the media is everywhere, that strategy may win you one friend but it creates countless critics. And public research universities are not supposed to show such favoritism if they truly are working for the public good. The Post’s readers should not be the only ones privy to information on this critical issue that cuts to the heart of the university’s mission.
Information on health and medical research differs from other messages sent from research universities. It is integrally linked to the lives and welfare of the public. It’s not a marketing tool to be used to the advantage of an institution. Maryland could have avoided all of this simply by being open and transparent in the beginning. And failing that, the University could now minimize the damage to its reputation by answering specific questions from reporters about the process and scope of the review that’s being undertaken. Instead, they seem to be doling out small morsels of information to select outlets while ignoring tough questions from the rest of us.
It’s a strategy that gives the illusion of greater transparency while keeping the stone wall firmly in place.
Earle Holland is the former Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University. He’s now one of our regular reviewers and blog contributors.
Publisher’s note with update at 2 pm CST today:
We received an email from University of Maryland chief communications officer Crystal Brown with this message:
Here’s a statement from Ann Wylie, Professor Emerita of Geology and former senior vice president and provost:
“It is very important that we understand fully what happened and how this partial study was released to the public prior to peer review.
The vice president of research has asked the review committee to look at the premise of the study, how the study was reviewed, as well as how it was implemented. If possible violations of university polices are uncovered by the review they will be referred for further investigation as appropriate.”