The University of California has paid about $100,000 to a crisis communications consultant to assist UC Davis as the campus coped with fallout from the pepper-spraying of protesters.
Until 2010, that same consultant, a division of Marsh Risk Consulting, had ties to Kroll Inc.— the outside firm hired by UC to provide an independent account of what happened that day on the Quad. Both Marsh and Kroll are headquartered in New York.
A senior member of Marsh’s “reputation risk and crisis management team,” and sometimes a second Marsh employee, worked “three or four days” per week on the Davis campus starting Nov. 22, four days after a video of officers pepper-spraying about a dozen Occupy UCD protesters drew worldwide attention.
At first, the senior Marsh staff member acted “almost like an air-traffic controller,” as UCD coped with worldwide press attention, according to Lynn Tierney, associate vice president of communications for the UC Office of the President.
Marsh also helped UCD plan its response to its various constituent groups, including its students and their parents, employees and alumni, she said. Additionally, Marsh contributed to long-term planning work before the holidays and remains on call if needed.
Tierney said that she suggested to UCD officials that they bring in Marsh — UC’s longtime insurance broker and, more recently, a consultant on emergency planning. She did so because the campus’ communications office was hit with the crisis during a change in leadership, she said.
“(Marsh employees) weren’t doing the work themselves, they were working with the folks at Davis to make sure the information flow was timely and that it was all accurate and cleared,” Tierney said on Thursday.
“In that situation, when you have the kind of worldwide attention they had at Davis, it would be easy to put out misinformation if it wasn’t well-contained. We wanted to make sure we got the most timely information to the right audiences.”
Claudia Morain, director of UCD News Service, said having a consultant on hand was helpful.
“The demands on our unit were unprecedented,” she said. “We had global media calling us so it was valuable to have someone come in and help us try to stay on top of the media crush and get all of our other work done.”
Marsh has performed risk-consulting work for UC since 2009, Tierney said, working on projects as varied as providing training in earthquake preparedness and evaluating UC’s response to the H1N1 flu outbreak. A different division of the company recently compiled a review of student health centers.
Both Marsh and Kroll were part of Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. until 2010 when Kroll was sold to Altegrity Inc.
Former Los Angeles police Chief William Bratton, already working for Altegrity, then became Kroll’s chairman.
UC President Mark Yudof chose Bratton and Kroll to handle the fact-finding into the pepper-spraying. That report is to be the basis for recommendations made by a task force led by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, now set for release Feb. 21.
Yudof’s choice of Bratton quickly came under fire from critics, who charged Kroll’s previous work raised questions about a possible conflict of interest.
Yudof has repeatedly dismissed those concerns.
“I’m a lawyer. There is zip, zero conflict here,” he told state legislators in December.
Public records requests for details of Kroll’s earlier work for UC so far have gone unanswered. UC has said only that the firm has provided background checks and security guidance for visits by dignitaries and threatened researchers.
“No,” Tierney said, when asked if any former ties between Kroll and Marsh raised a red flag.
UC Santa Cruz professor Robert Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, disagreed.
“How can we know that Kroll’s fact-finding isn’t consistent with the story that Marsh wants to tell if there aren’t safeguards against the permeability of these two entities?” Meister asked. “We won’t know whether the fact-finding is independent of the script.”
Told about Marsh’s work on campus, Carl Whithaus, director of the University Writing Program and among those who’ve expressed concern about Kroll’s investigation, said he and others had noted a “distinct change in tone” in Chancellor Linda Katehi’s letters to campus — especially since her initial message, released just after the pepper-spraying, which some have said seemed oblivious to what had happened.
“I’m not surprised to hear that (UC has) hired someone to deal with crisis communications,” Whithaus said. “The chancellor has been fairly explicit in meetings with faculty about being unhappy with the way her communications staff performed during the crisis.”
The cost of Marsh’s work during a budget crisis is also likely to raise the ire of UC critics.
Marsh charged $375 per hour for its help, running up a bill of “close to $100,000,” Tierney estimated. That money will be paid out of the same UC risk insurance funds being used to pay Kroll, which is charging $300 per hour.
Separately, UCD is paying Van Dermyden Allison Law Corp. of Sacramento $250 per hour and Yorba Linda-based Norman A. Traub Associates $160 per hour to partner on the campus’ internal investigation.
A potentially expensive civil suit by protesters is in the works, but has not yet been filed.
Other even steeper costs may be tougher to calculate.
“One of the unknowns is, what is the reputational damage,” Tierney said, adding, “Hopefully we can get past this and get back to the real business, which is providing the citizens of California and the country with the excellence that Davis has to offer, and that that can become the focus, because it’s certainly been a destructive diversion.”
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden