Damage Control

When I was still an undergrad at the University of Richmond, I wrote a Digital America piece on “the Streisand Effect,” an internet-age phenomenon that involves individuals inadvertently drawing attention to a topic by trying to…well, draw attention away from the topic. In the early-2000s, Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress images of her coastal Malibu home that were part of a collection of 12,000 California coastline photos (they were publicly available online). By doing so, she drew massive amounts of attention to the photographs in question, and her “problem” became worse than it ever needed to be. It’s the ultimate example of the Streisand Effect, an ironic title considering the fact that we’re currently discussing her beach house in an attempt to explain the term itself.

ANYWAYS, I was reading the news yesterday when I found an article from the Sacramento Bee that brought some unexpected nostalgia to my life. It was about the University of California, Davis and the infamous “pepper spray incident” from November 2011. A group of unarmed Occupy protesters were sitting on a strip of pavement in a campus quad, and they refused to leave when police began to remove tents and makeshift camps that the protesters had been using. One officer, Lieutenant John Pike, decided that it would be a good idea to spray military-grade pepper spray at the unarmed protesters at point-blank range (the recommended range for that particular type of spray is six feet). The act was captured on cell phones and video cameras, and the officer was quickly placed on administrative leave.

You may be wondering why “nostalgia” would be my first reaction to the UC Davis incident. The images from the protest had quickly spread around the world and the story was covered by major news outlets, and because the Internet loves to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to perceived injustices, Lieutenant Pike became the subject of quite a number of Photoshop contests. I shared a few of these creations on my Facebook page between November 21-22, 2011. Here is Lieutenant Pike crossing Abbey Road with the gang. Here is Lieutenant Pike at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Here is Lieutenant Pike relaxing on the island of La Grande Jatte.

My goal wasn’t to make a political statement or to show solidarity with the Occupy protesters who’d received unexpected spray tans from Lt. Pike. I shared them because they amused me, and the sheer absurdity of the officer’s actions deserved to be shared and known to the world. Pike became a household name for a brief period of time, and in 2013 (about two years after the incident) he was paid $38,000 in worker’s compensation for his “psychological pain and suffering.” I sure hope I wasn’t the person who drove him to his breaking point…

But I digress, and I am slowly getting off-track.

The aforementioned article from The Sacramento Bee reveals that UC Davis has spent over $175,000 on consultants who have worked to “’eradicate references’ to the incident in search results.” These consultants are members of Nevins & Associates, a group of professionals who combine “innovative thinking with a big picture perspective to achieve a profound and meaningful change in the way [their] clients are seen, understood and recognized by their audiences. According to the Bee, “The Nevins proposal for UC Davis stated that it would employ the expertise of founder David Nevins, a former chairman of the Maryland Board of Regents, and counter negative search keywords for UC Davis by using a ‘surge of content with positive sentiment and off-topic subject matter’ about the university.”

This is a unique example of the Streisand Effect. It’s as if there’s a HUGE spot of burned, charred, rocky, and cratered earth in your backyard, and you decide to blast your backyard with beautiful flowers and vegetable plants and landscaping in hopes that your neighbors won’t be able to see how ugly that particular spot is. The Sacramento Bee has been relentless in their search for the full truth behind what appears to be a massive attempt at fixing the damage that Lieutenant Pike has done to the university’s image and reputation. By doing so, they’re effectively undoing literally thousands of dollars’ worth of positivity that Nevins & Associates strategically scattered across the Internet landscape.

The Huffington Post published a story on April 14th titled “UC Davis Wants You To Forget About Its Pepper Spray Incident. So Here’s The Video.” On April 15th, the BBC published their own article concerning the cover-up (when international news outlets begin to report on your University’s mistakes, you know it’s bad). All of a sudden, an act of stupidity that took about ten seconds and ended up costing the university millions of dollars is back in the spotlight. I honestly can’t believe that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi is still working for the school considering her involvement in the incident, and I REALLY can’t believe that she used school funds to pay the consultants to scrub her name clean. It looks like the pressure is mounting for her resignation, so the situation will most likely get progressively worse before it improves over in California.

While this particular issue may be newsworthy, the strategies that Nevins & Associates utilized are nothing new. There are countless “consultant” agencies that seek to improve the web presence of an individual, a business, etc., and many of these agencies specialize in fixing negative press. I did a quick search online and came across an “online reputation management” company called Chief Online Business and Solutions Group (or COBS). Their goal is clear: “we help clients remove /suppress negative, unfair information and press that they would rather not have seen by potential customers, colleagues, head hunters, employers and other stakeholders: as a result we repair, promote and manage reputations from celebrities to individuals, from small businesses to corporate organizations and CEO’s.” From reversing the effects of cyber bullying to drowning negative Yelp reviews with more positive experience, COBS makes it their mission to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward when it comes to utilizing the Internet as your primary means of interacting with your clients or audience.

I’ll be honest with you, I rarely need to scroll past the first page of Google search results while searching for something, which means that these kinds of tactics are particularly effective on someone like me. However, in the case of the UC Davis pepper spray incident, I can’t believe they spent so much money on covering up bad press instead of using the money to help the victims or fund additional training for proper police tactics in those types of situations. According to the Sacramento Bee, “the university paid Nevins’ firm $92,970.73 through July 2013, including travel and lodging costs for Nevins associate Molly White.” Nevis had a six-month contract, and when their work was complete the university went to ANOTHER firm, ID Media Partners, to continue the work that Nevins had started. Their first contract (there were three separate contracts) was for $82,500.

As with the Pike photoshop photos that I’d posted about five years ago, I don’t really have some kind of big agenda I’m trying to push, an I don’t have a vendetta against UC Davis. I guess the main takeaway from everything that’s been uncovered is that Google Analytics and ad-based search results aren’t the only two factors that are at play when you’re trying to look for information online, and you need to be aware of the very real possibility that the results you’re seeing have been curated by an agency like Nevins’. This isn’t very important if you’re just trying to get to Amazon’s homepage so you can buy your audiobooks and dish soap, but if you’re doing research on a controversial and newsworthy topic, dig deep and don’t rely on the information you’re simply given.

With that being said, it does feel cool to add yet another pepper spray-related article to the Internet. I suppose it’s my little contribution to the university’s problem; after all, when it comes to Pike’s folly and its impact on the future of public perception with regards to UC Davis, any press is bad press.

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