By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA – On Aug. 12, 2014, a secret meeting of a “college-age-activities committee” convened in the cavernous Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. Adjacent Indiana University of Pennsylvania hosted the event. The public and the press were barred.
Participants included university representatives, borough officials both elective and administrative, state emergency-management officials and as many as 665 local landlords. The agenda: How to prevent riotous behavior -– and bad p.r. — by students and other young people who partied most notoriously on South Seventh Street during that spring’s IUPatty’s revel.
This year, the committee, renamed the Indiana Area Collaborative Team, or I-ACT, met March 3 to prepare for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parties. As it did last year, the diverse group designated a primary source for public information about the event and related public-safety issues, according to one official who attended. That primary source is Michelle S. Fryling, executive director of communications and media relations at IUP.
Fryling has assumed a central role in coordinating local and state agencies for annual news events such as IUPatty’s, said borough police Chief William C. Sutton during a March 16 interview in his downtown office. Her role is to minimize the bad p.r. that has followed earlier party weekends.
“Following the 2014 IUPatty’s weekend, IUP definitely began to crack down on its students in a more strict manner,” Sutton said. “Their reputation among other state schools is very important to them. And if riots are in the news, like 2014, it doesn’t help their case.”
But Fryling’s public-information position extends beyond managing crisis communication to fielding routine inquiries year-round. Whether questions arise about hiring and spending or campus public safety, the public university points to her for a response.
The centralized approach to campus communications rankles some. Michele R. Papakie, chairwoman of IUP’s Journalism and Public Relations Department, disagreed with the approach during a March 30 interview in her campus office.
“Professionally, I agree to disagree with how IUP handles public matters,” Papakie said in a March 30 interview in her campus office. “No one wants to talk about the negative aspects of an institution. But to be credible, we must address all areas where improvement could be necessary.”
Papakie, whose professional experience includes service as a public-information officer for Pittsburgh police, said she empathized with professionals such as Fryling.
“It’s a lot of work to represent an institution,” Papakie said. “But we must be as transparent as possible. We are doing a disservice to the public by funneling information through a single individual.”
LACK OF transparency can hinder the relationship between the public and its public universities, according to the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that supports “student news media in their struggle to cover important issues free from censorship,” according to its website. SPLC is critical of public institutions that rely on a single spokesperson.
“A canned statement written by a professional spokesperson is no substitute for direct interaction with the leaders on campus making the decisions,” Frank D. LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said in a March 2 email interview.
LoMonte’s view is supported by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, a New York City non-profit that represents public relations professionals nationwide. The code says “advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.”
FRYLING responded in a March 4 email interview by quoting a “corporate communications textbook” which stated that public-information officers, or PIOs, are “essential” for organizations to handle public relations.
“The single point of contact and public-relations-office structure has been in place here for decades,” said Fryling, the university’s primary p.r. person for 24 years. “This doesn’t mean that others in the university don’t give interviews or aren’t on the news — that happens often — when it’s appropriate.”
It apparently wasn’t appropriate last month during Harrisburg’s budget stalemate. IUP administrators, faculty members and Student Government Association members declined comment on how funding uncertainties could affect the university. An IUP administrator steered all questions to Fryling, who declined comment.
OTHER professional organizations are critical of public information officers acting as gatekeepers when reporters seek interviews of public officials. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists, a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis, is dedicated to “encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior,” according to its website.
PIO gate-keeping can interfere with the public’s right to know about its public institutions, said Carolyn S. Carlson, a member of SPJ’s freedom of information center and an associate professor at Kennesaw State University’s communications department.
Carlson cited a 2014 study she co-authored of how PIOs can adversely affect public information. The study surveyed 190 journalists who cover K-12, higher education and state and federal departments of education.
The study concluded that “information flow in the United States is highly regulated by public information officers, to the point where most reporters considered the control to be a form of censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public.”
“The PIOs are blocking interviews for some reporters,” Carlson wrote Feb. 23 email interview. “Also, they tend to monitor the interviews — sit in on them and sometimes participate in them.”
FRYLING has followed this practice. During fall 2015 interviews with IUP administrators about sexual assaults on campus, Fryling sat in on the discussion in her Sutton Hall office.
David Cuillier, an associate professor and director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an SPJ “freedom of information expert,” said such practices are expanding, at the expense of access to public information.
“This insidious form of PIO control is out of control across the country, from federal agencies to cities and school districts – and apparently your university,” Cuillier advised in a Feb. 23 email. “I figure if they are this focused on controlling the message, then it is possible they have something to hide.”
Logan Hullinger, a sophomore journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Clarion, is a staff reporter for The HawkEye. He can be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu.