UC Davis paid at least $175,000 to improve online reputation after pepper-spraying students in 2011


In 2011, protesting students at the University of California, Davis, were pepper sprayed by campus police. Video of the interaction shows the students, seated and apparently peaceful members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, being systematically sprayed by officers as witnesses pleaded with them to stop. It’s not a good look for the university, and UC officials have since spent a lot of money trying to restore their online reputation. Like, a lot of money.

According to an documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee, the university paid consultants at least $175,000 to do things like scrub search results and improve their social media presence.

In 2013, Nevins & Associates, a public relations and marketing company, signed a 6-month long contract with the university to achieve these goals, and charged $15,000 per month. In a proposal of services, the company listed a number of objectives, including:

  • “Launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed.”
  • “Provide consultation services as desired by the Chancellor and her team for brand enhancement as well as for internal and external communications.”
  • “Advise and support UC Davis’ adoption of Google platforms to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”

All told, the university paid Nevins & Associates $93,970.73.

In 2014, the university hired ID Media Partners to “design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy,” according to The Bee. The company explained that its goal was to “achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor [Linda] Katehi.” The university paid ID Media Partners a total of $82,500.

A CBS affiliate in Sacramento, CBS 13, reports that UC Davis’s communication budget has expanded rapidly from 2009 ($3 million) to 2015 ($5.5 million). Money for the contracts awarded to both marketing firms came from this budget.

In a statement, a UC Davis rep told The Bee that “we have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” adding, “we wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.”

The news emerges as students are again calling for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi, who was under scrutiny in 2011 over the force used against student protesters. This time, members of the UC Davis community are distressed by Katehi’s acceptance of paid positions on the boards of for-profit corporations.

Maybe she can use that money to fix her online reputation, again.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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