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Chancellor Search makes headline news…before it’s really news?

Last night and this morning were the kind of challenging times communicators have to deal with in today’s always on, 24-hour news cycle.

Around 9 p.m. the News & Observer posted an article with the headline “NCSU set to announce chancellor.”  The story was picked up by local television and radio news crews and by 9:30 p.m. it was spreading like wildfire.  A number of people in the area and on campus had even posted links to the story or tweeted about the article on university sites.  This morning, it was the lead story in the N&O.

Only problem, neither the university nor the Board of Governors would confirmed the story…and won’t.

We won’t confirm the story because until the Board of Governor’s receives a chancellor recommendation from Erskine Bowles, and until the Board of Governors votes to accept that recommendation, and until the individual recommended and approved (if he or she is approved) accepts the BOG’s action, it’s not news.

Really?  Really!

I know it’s hard to accept, but until it’s a done deal, it’s not a done deal.  You know, the fat-lady-sings thing.  Just go back to Sunday’s basketball game.  The Wolfpack had it,  up by two with two seconds to play, ball at the far end of the court.  No way could Florida win.  But win they did when a 75-foot Hail Mary swished through the nets.  And think about it, this kind of thing happens all the time, and not just in sports.  GM had Saturn sold. GM had Saab sold.  Now look.  Anybody want to buy a car company today?  I’m not trying to pick on GM, it’s just the way of the world.  Always was, always will be. Things change.

The search for a new chancellor is not basketball or automobiles, but as a public institution we’ve got to play by the rules and follow good journalistic principles;  It’s not a done deal until it’s a done deal and it’s not a done deal until it has been confirmed by those directly involved. We aren’t trying to sell newspapers here, therefore stories we hear from a friend of a friend of a friend (regardless of how good we think those sources are) will never be reported as news from a campus news source.  And never should be.

Here’s a message I put out to campus communicators earlier today.  I’ll be interested in your thoughts and ideas on how we might handle this differently in  the future.  And just when does something become “news?”  And what is “news” anymore?

Fellow Communicators,

By now you have probably seen the story in the News & Observer regarding our Chancellor search.  As communicators, one of our goals is to provide useful information to those around us and our initial reaction to the story might be to send it everywhere.  While that may be the case, please understand that no official action has been taken by the Board of Governors and it would be inappropriate for NC State to take any action at this time.  A vote on the issue is scheduled for Friday morning by the Board of Governors, but until that action has been taken, no announcement will be made by the University.  We’d like to ask that you refrain from sending the story to your constituent groups as well.

You can acknowledge that President Bowles will make his recommendation to the Board at its meeting on Friday and the full Board of Governors is scheduled to vote on that recommendation.  Beyond that, we should not comment.

I know it feels awkward right now, but as part of the larger University of North Carolina organization, it’s our responsibility to maintain the proper decorum and follow the procedures put in place by the General Administration.  That means we should not comment on stories in the media until official action has been taken.

An official announcement will be provided by NC State University Friday morning and posted on the University’s home page, after any official action by the BOG.


So there you have it.  A challenge for communicators on campus to be sure, especially when news and information travels at light speed and a blog post or tweet can reach thousands of people in an instant.

Passion Rules!

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1 Suzanne { 01.07.10 at 7:35 am }

Thanks for posting this. While it’s exciting, the news of a new chancellor also caught me off guard. Why is the search process being conducted in secret, as the N&O described? Is that standard protocol?

2 Joe Hice { 01.07.10 at 7:45 am }

The search process is managed by the University of North Carolina Genearl Administration and its Board of Governors. Their policy is that all Chancellor searches are conducted in private. They believe that qualified candidates will be less likely to participate in a public search.

3 Grant Heston { 01.07.10 at 7:46 am }

Great post, Joe! This is happening with more and more frequency, unfortunately. You nailed it by saying university communicators need to respect the process and not conclude that anything is a fait accompli. I plan to share this with our team here.

Best wishes at NCSU!

4 Joe Hice { 01.07.10 at 7:50 am }

It’s a challenge today with the definitions of news changing and the speed of information accelerating. As a public university we’re held to higher standards and while our initial reaction may be to spread the word as quickly as possible, in situations like this you just have to wait. Hope you all are staying warm down there.

5 Tyler Dukes { 01.07.10 at 9:51 am }

I suppose it’s also your argument that the N&O should have held its coverage of the Mary Easley scandal until someone in the administration confirmed wrongdoing?

N.C. State commands more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money, but has consistently set up a chancellor selection process that fails to vet the candidates before the public.

Sorry, but when the president of the UNC System makes his pick for that leadership position, it’s news — even if you don’t want it to be.

6 Rob { 01.07.10 at 10:42 am }

Absolutely, Joe, the N&O story is very newsworthy indeed. It has a close proximity and new information to present to the N&O reader base; I think it’s safe to say it is undoubtedly of public interest. Is an NCSU win over UNC in basketball not news until Joe says so, too?

I am fine with their story because they clearly indicate that they’re reporting on mere chatter. They indicate that all their multiple sources were off-the-record; and with language like “is expected to” in the story’s lead, they’re not claiming that anything is set-in-stone. They also say there’s no official university statement as of yet.

With no university employee making official statements of behalf of the university, it sounds like your people did their job, don’t blame the N&O for doing theirs.

7 Craig McDuffie { 01.07.10 at 11:17 am }

News organizations fight this battle, too. What is news vs. gossip? What is fact vs. opinion, hearsay, etc? I thought it was very interesting that last night WTVD 11 News quoted the N&O, naming Woodson, while WRAL TV 5, which has a working relationship with the N&O, also covered the story, but didn’t mention him.

As connecting with other people becomes easier and easier, there seems to be a quickly eroding line between communication and pontification, as people simply vie for attention. Integrity can’t be compromised if reliability is to remain. Thank you for holding the line!

8 Joe Hice { 01.07.10 at 1:06 pm }

Rob: I didn’t mean to imply that the N&O hadn’t done their job or had done something wrong. They have four sources (thought I have never liked the anonymous types) and I think they were just doing their job. I was trying to point out the challenges we have on our side.

9 Joe Hice { 01.07.10 at 1:16 pm }

I don’t have an issue with the N&O and have to admit I look forward to reading the paper every morning…whether we’re in it or not. But I do hate anonymous sources, even four of them.

10 Jason Austin { 01.07.10 at 1:32 pm }

Is the challenging aspect that the N&O reported something that wasn’t accurate (or was too soon)?

Is it that the story moved so fast via “new media” that it was hard to get in front of it?

Is the challenge educating University communicators about what is and is not proper to relay via official channels?

I think the University actually handled this one pretty well. I looked through the official University twitter feeds (http://twitter.ncsu.edu) and only found one tweet about it from WKNC. I didn’t get any NCSU emails or see any official blogs that were touting the story. I feel like the communicators did a pretty good job of /not/ reporting anything that wasn’t confirmed by the University, but I am not privy to all of their communications.

The real communication challenge for NC State is the leaking of information about the chancellor search before it had been confirmed, if there was the mandate to keep that info in house. Of course, executing a search of that high caliber in secret seems to be next to impossible, it still doesn’t give people who have privileged information the right to share it with anyone who asks.

I would like to hear more of what specifically was challenging with this particular incident.

11 Say it ain’t so, Joe! | Write -30- { 01.11.10 at 8:27 am }

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