I think reasonable-minded citizens can draw the conclusion that the University of Hawaii has gone overboard in hiring public relations people.

Fifty-two of them who spend 100 percent of their work time on “relations” for the school’s 10 campuses. Two who spent 80 percent of their work time. Sixteen more who spend 50 percent of their work time.

It would be easy for me to just head-slap the UH and make alumni feel you never want to contribute another dollar. But that would not be fair because the university thought it was doing a needed job of publicizing its programs, facilities and research breakthroughs.

And I sense that incoming interim president David Lassner knows there is excess, and I’m hoping we’ll see some changes.

We can clearly blame the excess hiring and spending on presidents Evan Dobelle and M.R.C. Greenwood, who faced mounting bad publicity and internal problems and apparently felt throwing more money at more ex-journalist publicists was the solution. The university is spending $1,136,358 for PR staff salaries and still hires piece-work outsiders such as Wally Zimmermann, Howard Dashefsky and Ed Nishioka to puff up projects like the Biological Laboratory and the Nursing School, and Barbara Tanabe to work that Stevie Wonder fiasco.

I’m told the thinking was that if you send out a news release the news media will ignore it. So you hire ex news people now in PR to rustle up interest. Zimmermann is an ex TV news director, Dashefsky an ex TV anchor, Nishioka an ex TV news producer, Tanabe an ex TV anchor.

But the UH has been paying top salaries for its in-house people who should be able to handle this.

By law, the UH only discloses a “range” of an union employee’s salary; exact salaries for executives. I’ll use each position’s top figure, although the person might be paid less. Senate President Donna Mercado Kim says she suspects most are being paid the high end.

PR associate vice president Lynne Waters’s executive post is listed at $132,536 a year. Ex TV news reporter Jodi Leong is director of UH communications at an authorized $128,288. Ex TV reporter/anchor Dan Meizenzahl heads media production at $103,784, former TV reporter Kelli Abe Trifonovich at $113,424 and ex TV cameraman Cliff Watson is a videographer at about $113,424.

The PR listings are long: Also former print or TV journalists with those jobs are Tina Shelton ($113,424) and Diane Chang($113,424). Former legislator Jerry Chang holds a UH-Hilo PR job paying a guaranteed $121,416 a year.

According to the UH website “the Public Relations office is the primary point of contact for journalists. The staff works closely with campus communication and public information officers in publicizing newsworthy events or findings.”

You mean they need all those 52 full-PR-time people and 16 half-PR-time people plus Zimmermann, Dashefsky, Nishioka, etc., to publicize newsworthy events?

Hawaii News Now’s Keoki Kerr reported that “the UH hired two public relations firms with contracts worth $150,000 to supplement the work of PR people already on the UH system payroll.”

It makes me feel we are well rid of Greenwood and her predecessor, Dobelle. He had seven more PR people working on his Manoa staff than Greenwood’s 13.

Now let’s see what interim president Lassner does when he takes over September 1.

About the author: Bob Jones is a longtime Hawaii resident and veteran journalist. A former NBC News foreign correspondent, he was a reporter and anchor at KGMB.


Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

Comments