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Internet Finds UC Davis’ $175k Effort to Scrub Pepper Spray References Distasteful

UC davis pepper spray

In a classic example of the so-called “Barbra Streisand Effect,” efforts by University of California, Davis to scrub away online mentions of campus police’s infamous pepper spraying of student protesters has only served to make incident fresh again in the minds of the general public. Chancellor Linda Katehi’s spending of over $175,000 to PR firms like Nevin & Associates to “expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results” left a particularly bad taste in the their mouth.

In response to this incident and Katehi’s alleged conflicts of interest serving on boards like for-profit college DeVry University, some are calling once again for her resignation. Even though the University denies it spent public or tuition-based funds on their PR push, the spicy rhetoric the move has elicited serves as a lesson in letting sleeping dogs lie rather than trying to control online narratives through content.

Inflammatory Actions

The original 2011 incident that led to this issue was set into motion by students inspired by the Occupy Wall St. movement. Upset about thousands in tuition hikes, students took to the campus quad and refused to vacate, setting up tents and chanting protest statements. Since overnight camping on campus property is prohibited, campus police were ordered to intervene by forcibly removing tents, operating under instructions to “use no other force.”

Instead, the campus police showed up in full riot gear during the daytime, armed with batons and pepper spray. When the officers began to remove tents and request protesters to leave, they found themselves encircled by a ring of sitting students and protesters. Protesters were warned that their actions amounted to police detainment and that the officers would use force if necessary to disrupt their impedance. After several warnings, the police sprayed the sitting, non-violent protesters in the face with neon orange pepper spray, creating an unforgettable image that was an instant meme.

While a video documenting extended footage of the incident claims police were in their right to administer non-lethal force like pepper spray, an investigatory task force drew the opposite conclusion, finding that “the pepper spraying incident that took place on Nov. 18, 2011, should and could have been prevented.” Local civil courts seemed to agree, ruling in favor of assaulted students in 2012 and forcing the University to pay nearly $1 million in damages to 21 students.

Pepper Incident Stings Again After Seasoned PR Firm Is Hired

The 2012 settlement seemed like the end of the ordeal as the incident largely faded from public memory. Or, at least, that would have likely been the case had Chancellor Linda Katehi and UC Davis not decided to engage in “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign” to bury negative content related to the pepper spraying in favor of highlighting “the excellent work underway at UC Davis with respect to educating the next generation of students, pursuing groundbreaking research, and providing important services to the state.”

Maryland-based public relations company Nevins & Associates was solicited by the university in 2013 — just a few months after the settlement — as part of a $15,000 a month contract aimed at alleviating the “venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor” through use of “strategic placement of online content.” Another firm named IDMLOCO obtained an even more lucrative $82,500 contract from the university to help craft a “comprehensive search engine results management strategy.”

The Sacramento Bee broke the story just a few days ago after soliciting these contract documents under the California Public Records Act. With all the blowback and negative press the subsequent revelation has caused, UC Davis can effectively consider their PR money poorly spent.

Rigging Google May Not Always Work Out in Your Favor

Viewing these events as a whole — especially the recent negative press regarding the efforts to suppress coverage of the original incident — brands can learn a valuable lesson in not trying to control the rhythm of online discussions. Although strategies like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and content publishing can provide benefits, it can never be used to completely control the flow of information to any appreciable degree. If anything, trying too hard as UC Davis has done can only result in negative consequences.

So take a lesson in leaving bad-enough alone, and recognize that content should be used to benefit audiences as much as your reputation in reflection of the whole affair.

EverSpark Interactive can help you develop such a content strategy. While we may not be able force the internet to forget an incident as hot as this one, we can help you push toward a brighter future. 

Take a look at our digital marketing services to get started making smart content publishing decisions today.