The president called me at 3 p.m. the afternoon of the Attorney General’s press conference on the major drug bust. My news director and I (mainly him) were answering media questions. The president asked me to attend a meeting the students were holding that night.
It was an information session on the bust.
I said I would be there, along with the student affairs person and the provost. Someone said it would be a small gathering.
At 7 p.m. I walked over to the Student Activities meeting room.
At least 100 students sat waiting. They weren’t happy.
The Student Affairs director introduced us and the questions began, directed at me.
First question: “Why did you release the names of the student and all their information?” I was shocked at the students’ naivete.
“We didn’t,” I said. “The police did.”
“ It’s all over the Web.”
“It came from the Attorney General’s Office,” I explained. “When someone is arrested, the information is public.”
Two other students angrily asked me why we were making the students’ names public, making them look guilty before they were tried. The students involved in the bust were composed of black students and white students, but I could see now that this was all about race.
“We have no control over the information,” I said. “It’s provided to the media by the police. Our job is to answer questions we’re legally allowed to. No more, no less.”
There were more questions, then this: “Are drugs a big problem on campus?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “In this case we had a minority of students that made it look bad for a lot of students.”
A sudden buzz among the audience began growing. It was dark and angry and getting angrier. I realized that they had picked up on the word “minority” and turned it into a slam against the minority population.
The grumble became a low roar. Just before it swelled out of control the Student Affairs director stepped up to the mic and told them to calm down and show respect. Slowly the noise subsided. I was amazed.
The provost, to my great relief, jumped in and translated what I had said and took it from there.
The meeting ended quietly. I’m not sure the students ever understood that the PR Department didn’t release the students’ names. They left, a little more educated but still upset.
Dealing with reporters is easy. We’ve got a major drug bust. It’s public.
Let’s get it done.
The secret is that you’re not on opposite sides. You’re dealing with a big story. For reporters and PR the end is the same: Headlines today. A new story tomorrow.
Students, I found out, are in a gray area in which emotion trumps the law. They are also subject to the influence of friends, faculty and staff.
At the end of a 16-hour-day, it was the students who were on my mind—the angry, the confused, and yes, the arrested.