Amid surging tuition rates, a shrinking state budget and a failed concert fiasco that raised concerns over the institution’s internal structure, the University of Hawaii this past year spent roughly $4 million of its $1.4 billion operating budget on public relations, marketing and outreach, according to a Civil Beat review of records provided by the university.

That money covered a broad range of communications activities as well as the approximately 41 positions in charge of running them. Overall, the university spends about $65 per pupil on public relations and related services.

Data suggests that UH’s communications expenditures are on par with those at comparable public universities. But many of those institutions have swelling public relations budgets — a trend that has critics questioning whether universities are doing enough to keep costs in check and put students on track to success.

There’s no way to independently measure whether the money is well spent. But UH public relations people argue that it is.

“Universities everywhere have that tension,” said Lynne Waters, the UH’s associate vice president for external affairs and university relations. “It’s a constant battle to try and maintain transparency” while looking after the university’s image.

Moreover, calculating exactly what the university spends on public relations — and the precise number of staff involved — is not possible because of overlap in staff responsibilities and inconsistencies in how the various campuses are run.

UH could be spending much more than $4 million on public relations, depending on how its defined.

Communications is a vague umbrella category for duties ranging from news media management to government relations, Waters said.

Waters pointed to a database generated by her office containing about 150 names for staff involved in “public, community, legislative, government, communications and/or relations positions for all campuses.” Next to their names are salary ranges — the majority of them are unionized — and percentages reflecting how much of their time is devoted to “relations duties.”

But Waters and other communications staff say only 41 people are actually involved in “conventional” public relations: news media relations, speech writing, management of video and online media and the like.

The issue of public relations spending was recently raised when a group of senators last year formed a special committee on accountability to investigate UH system management following the Stevie Wonder concert blunder that cost the university more than $200,000. UH officials also revealed that the university spent about $150,000 on contracts with two outside public relations firms to handle communications for planned research projects.

Lawmakers have continued to clamp down on the university this legislative session, accusing it of “bloating” its administration while failing to cut back on tuition fees, which are increasing at the second highest rate in the country, according to Wall Street Journal data.

Each Campus Handles Communications Differently

The UH system encompasses 10 campuses, including the university’s seven community colleges. Each campus maintains its own staff and budget that are overseen by its chancellor.

The decentralization of university communications means that each campus delineates its public relations efforts individually. University communications operate independently of the campuses, Waters says, and are paid for with general funds appropriated by the Legislature. Campus-specific communications budgets are funded primarily by tuition and other special fees, though some money comes from general funds.

Waters is the university’s highest-earning communications official, making nearly $143,000 each year, and is responsible for UH strategic communications planning, community relations, creative services and marketing and brand management.

“Public relations is an outdated term,” she said. Modern technology and modes of communication, she said, enable institutions to connect with the public without the help of paid staff.

Waters calls the university’s communications specialists “communicators.” Depending on how each campus defines communications, their responsibilities could include the following categories, according to Waters:

  • News media management
  • Internal and external communications
  • Emergency communications and Clery Act compliance
  • Governance-related duties and government relations
  • Public information
  • Marketing
  • Fundraising

The university has 13 “communicators” working at the system level. Last year, the UH system paid roughly $1.2 million for communications activities, including staff salaries. Salaries made up more than 90 percent of the university’s communications budget, data show. (See below for campus-specific breakdowns.)

According to Waters, the system’s communications budget has shrunk since 2007, when UH spent nearly $1.4 million on communications, including 17 staff. The downsizing was part of a larger strategy to modernize the department — an effort led by Waters, who joined the university in 2011.

In the past year, UH has embarked on an effort to transform itself into what it calls a research-based institution. That involves its Innovation Initiative, a plan launched last spring to develop the state’s research industry by doubling the university’s outside funding — such as grants and federal funding — from $500 million to $1 billion per year over the next 10 years. UH plans to hire 50 “world-class researchers” in fields such as astronomy, ocean and climate sciences, clean energy and informatics.

The university earlier this year created a 39-page tabloid insert — entitled “The Sky is Not the Limit” — that was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

A contract with Oahu Publications for production and distribution services cost $84,000. Individual UH campuses and programs foot the bill for the contract services by purchasing ad space in the insert, according to the initiative’s lead spokeswoman Kelli Abe-Trifonovitch. (The contract also included producing magazines containing the same content.)

The money paid to have the insert put in 146,000 copies of the newspaper. The magazine version was sent to 4,500 business leaders. And the initiative got some press on local TV, radio and newspapers.

Meantime, the creation of a seven-person media production team in 2012 marks the most significant transformation that UH system communications has seen in years, Waters said. The team, led by former broadcast news reporter Dan Meisenzahl, produces multimedia news content for UH websites and the university’s sports channel. The cost of establishing that team isn’t broken out in the UH communications budget.

Meisenzahl also pointed out that the department uses UH students, including one intern and a number of other students who help narrate the segments.

In the last year, Meisenzahl and his team have produced 95 videos, which together have received more than 48,000 views on YouTube and more than 39,000 views on Vimeo.

“We are getting a lot of bang for our buck with this effort,” Meisenzahl said, adding that the videos provide much-needed video content for various campus, school and department websites, many of which didn’t have video content before. The videos, he said, are being viewed by valuable audiences, including prospective students and donors.

They also feature happenings at campuses that are often overshadowed by UH Manoa, Meisenzahl said.

The media production team also oversees the university’s social media. The university is increasingly harnessing various social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr — to promote awareness about the school and develop alternative means of reaching diverse audiences, including during emergencies, Meisenzahl said. He and his team hope to enhance audience engagement by experimenting with tools such as online events and live tweeting.

Meisenzahl also sends out video news releases to local broadcast stations containing video and sound clips featuring university ceremonies, events and stories. About half of the videos produced by the team get sent out. The goal is to share with the public positive stories that might not otherwise get told, Meisenzahl said.

But the practice has some raised some concern among critics who say news stations should always do their own reporting. (See related story.)

A report generated by media monitoring network Dateline Media shows that all Hawaii’s broadcast stations have run dozens of the UH-produced news clips during their regular newscasts, reaching an audience estimated at more than 9 million viewers. As of March 15, stations had run these segments 333 times.

PR Spending Under Scrutiny at Public Institutions Across the Country

Data shows that communications spending at universities and colleges is on the rise. Hawaii lawmakers, including Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, have criticized the trend, pointing to higher education’s skyrocketing costs.

In general, communications spending by public agencies has come under fire across the country in light of budget cuts that have forced governments to rein in funding for crucial social programs. Oregon’s government, for example, was criticized in 2011 for spending million of dollars on efforts that extended beyond the dissemination of news.

“The state may well have a responsibility to tell people about bridge closures or what to do to avoid a flu pandemic. But state communication goes beyond information, sometimes deliberately spinning the message to promote state policy,” wrote Oregonian reporters Michelle Cole and Ryan Kost in November 2011. “State agencies carefully calibrate their messages through polling, outside communications consultants and multimillion-dollar media campaigns.”

At UH in 2012 about 27 percent of its operating budget came from general funds allocated by the Legislature. The rest came from student tuition, extramural funding and other external revenue sources.

And many emphasize that public relations and marketing initiatives are critical for universities to attract and retain students.

Robert Moore, president and chief executive officer of LipmanHearne — a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm whose clients include higher education institutions — said that public universities across the country have been spending more on marketing and communications in recent years.

“As the competitive environment has increased and the state allocations have decreased more and more, public universities are having to pay more attention to enrollment and retention,” he said. “You don’t just want to get students in the door, but you want to give them the experience you promised them — that’s the ideal relationship.”

A 2012 study by Primary Research Group, which conducted surveys of the public relations efforts at 41 colleges and universities, predicted that public higher education students are spending about $51 per pupil on communications this school year.

UH, on average, spent about $68 per pupil last fall.

House Higher Education Committee Chair Isaac Choy said UH’s communications spending is justified as long as the university actively evaluates the outcomes of marketing and public relations efforts and is meeting its objectives.

“There’s some level of PR and communications necessary at the university — they can’t go to zero,” he said. “Hopefully they’re managing their resources well and monitoring the whatever goal they’re establishing.”

But goals vary from campus to campus.

Community colleges spokeswoman Susan Lee pointed to increasing enrollment at the seven campuses as evidence that their communications activities are producing a pronounced return on investment — namely because the bulk of those efforts are geared toward marketing and student recruitment.

Facing insufficient budgets to fund full-time communicators, the colleges in 2007 formed a “marketing co-op” to pull their money together and buy commercials featuring all the colleges.

“Rather than competing with each other with our messaging, we decided to do collaborative marketing,” said Lee.

The co-op also saves the campuses money, Lee said, because it’s allowed them to buy bigger advertising packaging for reduced rates.

Enrollment in fall 2006, before the colleges formed the marketing co-op, was slightly more than 25,260 students, according to Lee. Six years later, it was nearly 34,000 students.

Native Hawaiian enrollment also experienced a significant spike between 2006 and 2012, Lee said. Native Hawaiian enrollment more than doubled during that six-year span, now making up more than a fourth of the community colleges’ student population.

But aside from enrollment figures and metrics tracking media exposure, Waters said it’s hard to gauge the return on investment.

“Image is very difficult to measure,” she said. But communications is “the best way to counter negative publicity and remind people of the good we’re doing.”

Overview of communications spending at individual campuses:

UH Manoa

UH Manoa has 10 communications staff positions, but two are vacant, according to spokeswoman Diane Chang.

Its communications budget runs at about $843,000, or about 0.26 percent of the campus’s operating budget for the 2013 fiscal year. That’s including the $242,000 the campus paid for a contract with KHNL and KGMB to air 30-second commercials to help with student recruitment.

That means it spends roughly $41 per pupil on communications operations. The campus enrolls about 20,400 students.

UH Hilo

The Hilo campus employs eight staff who are in charge of communications, according to UH Hilo spokeswoman Alyson Kakugawa-Leong. The campus’s communications budget last year was about $565,000, or spending about $135 per student.

That covers marketing, alumni relations, media relations, special events, government and community relations, general operations and salaries.

The school reported no communications-related contracts worth more than $25,000.

UH West Oahu

The campus has significantly downsized its communications department in recent months, according to Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Denise Iseri-Matsubara.

The school last August had a six-person communications team and a $360,000 budget. Now, the school employs the equivalent of one and a half communicators, including one full-time public information officer and Iseri-Matsubara, who picks up some of the communications tasks. The department’s budget for the 2013 fiscal year is roughly $89,000, spending about $46 per-pupil

It also spent $25,600 on contract last year with KGMB for monthly web and mobile advertising.

According to Iseri-Matsubara, communications operations account for less than 1 percent of the school’s annual operating budget, which stands at $17.5 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

Community Colleges

The community colleges consist of seven campuses: Hawaii, Honolulu, Kapiolani, Kauai, Leeward, Windward and UH Maui College.

Together, their estimated budget last year was about $1.1 million, or about 0.7 percent of the colleges’ overall operating budget. Much of that money goes to the roughly eight staff in charge of communications operations throughout the campuses.

That means that that per-pupil communications amounts to about $33. In total, the colleges enroll about 34,000 students — more than half of the entire system’s student population.

Lee emphasized that other than the occasional press release, the communications staff hardly engage in public relations.

Most of their operations are concentrated on marketing and student recruitment, Lee said.

The community colleges last year paid roughly $182,000 for contracts with local broadcast stations and mainland media companies for TV and in-theatre advertising.

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