HealthNewsReview.org requested two months ago that the University of Maryland release public documents pertaining to a troubled study about chocolate milk and concussions — a request that the university is bound by law to fulfill within 30 days. While the university drags its feet, Andrew Holtz has been trying to find out more from Washington County (Maryland) Public Schools, whose student football players supposedly participated in the study. As he reports separately today, he learned that the school district’s account of events is vastly different from what a university news release suggests happened in the study. Below, Earle Holland comments on the university’s attempts to run out the clock on their PR problems, and explains why that strategy is unlikely to work.
First, they sent out a news release claiming that a brand of chocolate milk had restorative powers for high school athletes with concussions, even though the so-called “study” had not been published, peer-reviewed or even completed.
Then the university decided to stonewall all questions about the study, one that apparently used children from a local public school system — although that school system now denies that any of its students participated in such a study. Senior administrators and the lead researcher all clammed up. After several weeks, the University announced it was conducting its own inquiry and then went silent again on details.
Maryland’s outdated PR playbook
Ask most public relations experts about their advice in such crisis situations and they’ll quickly tell you to get out in front of the story – tell it all and tell it quickly. Anything else just amplifies suspicions that there’s worse to come. Maryland apparently skipped that lesson.
In an effort to gain answers to essential questions about the research, the Baltimore Business Journal (BBJ) – whose coverage of this story has been excellent – and HealthNewsReview.org both sent public records requests to the University as allowed under Maryland’s Public Information Act.
The documents requested included the project’s Institutional Review Board protocol which would outline research protections for the subjects; the main researcher’s annual conflict-of-interest form (required by the University), and any contract between UMd and the local school system allowing its students’ participation in the study.
Under the state’s Public Information Act, agencies must acknowledge receipt of such requests and provide an estimate of when it will be fulfilled, as well as information on any costs involved. If delays are necessary, then the organization has to provide a specific legal reasoning for the delay.
Vague excuses in response to BBJ
Frustrated by refusal to deliver the requested documents and after several attempts at learning the status of the newspaper’s request, BBJ finally heard from the university’s chief communications officer last week.
It reported that according to Crystal Brown, “The University will be providing the requested documents as soon as practicable. The committee’s report regarding this matter, which is also expected to be provided, is still being finalized. The review of both the requested documents and the final report need to be completed before public release to insure that legal obligations owed to parties referenced therein are met.”
A subsequent letter from the University’s deputy general counsel stated that Maryland’s communications with the newspaper “represent good faith compliance by the University with its legal obligations under the Act.”
Not hardly. Vague references to “legal obligations” don’t constitute a legitimate reason for withholding these documents, and it’s difficult to imagine any substantive concern as to why the release of these public documents — available with a few clicks of a computer mouse — should be delayed. Instead, it appears that the delay is part of a misguided public relations effort to put the best possible spin on the affair. The university hopes to release its report first, which, in theory, would help them to frame the narrative in a positive light and keep carping reporters on the sidelines.
A strategy that could backfire
But that’s a misreading of the situation. With as many eyes as there are on this fiasco, and as badly as it’s been managed thus far, it’s foolish to think that such games will influence the reporting to the university’s advantage — and in fact the opposite is more likely to be true as reporters become more frustrated and suspicious of the university’s motives.
In addition, as a public institution, the university has an obligation to work in the larger public interest, and that interest is not served by damage control efforts that delay and stymie the release of public information. The people of Maryland deserve to know, in a timely manner, the extent to which their public university has followed the appropriate rules that govern these kinds of research projects.
And what of HealthNewsReview.org’s public records request, one sent on January 31st of this year? We were informed our request “will take thirty days from the date your request was filed.”
Fifty-nine days have passed and we’ve received no word yet.