RE: Campus Plan Should Reflect Security, Sept. 17
In Curtiss Gibson’s guest column on campus safety, he described what he saw as a delay in an e-mail alert to students about the serial rapist on the loose in an area of Tampa near USF. He took a statement that I made out of context, and then said “Gullette thinks ignoring a public threat is a much better scenario for public relations than making students aware of a potential danger.”
Everyone is entitled to write an opinion piece, but I’m very easy to reach by phone, and if Gibson had taken the time to talk with me, his opinion might have been more grounded in fact. This administration never puts PR ahead of student safety. The serial rapist was linked to several rapes that took place over a period of years, not days. In consultation with police, we decided to put out an alert to urge students to be cautious.
At the same time, we felt a responsibility to word it properly (in order) to avoid panic and unnecessary fear, since the facts clearly showed – and the police confirmed – there was no connection to USF or our students. We didn’t believe it was an imminent threat, but it was too close for comfort. That’s why, as soon as I heard about the serial rapist and the proximity to USF, I contacted the Oracle and pitched the idea for a story so that students would be informed. From the way my call was received, it seemed the Oracle hadn’t heard about the rapist until I called. Then we in the administration began working on the idea of an e-mail alert. The Oracle story appeared the next day, I believe.
Over 30 years ago, I worked on my university’s student paper, and if news is happening that has an impact on students, I try to let the Oracle staff know so they can decide if they want to do a story.
My involvement in this tip wasn’t mentioned in Gibson’s opinion piece.
Some headlines, especially the one by a national online news outlet (“Smelly, Shoeless Rapist Encroaches on USF”) were irresponsible, sensational, and pulled USF into a story with no real connection to it. One TV reporter admitted to me that she understood there was no connection to USF, but that didn’t stop her from doing a live report from campus. They could just as easily have used another business or shopping center as their landmark rather than the University.
Even though I spent over two decades in news, it was bizarre to watch this happening from “the other side.” I accepted every media request for an interview on the subject because I knew one way to get the word out to students, faculty and staff was through the mainstream news media. I was even asked to do an interview for ABC’s Good Morning America. I complied, and the producer told me, laughing, that even the investigators said it wasn’t really a USF story. After the interview, GMA, to their credit, decided not to run it.
The way we practice public relations at USF is not to hide from news that some would describe as negative. Instead, the best PR is to respond properly to negative events, in the best interest of students, faculty, staff, and the institution. I believe in tackling “bad” news head-on. My ethics are as important to me now as they were when I was a reporter. Everyone has an opinion on the proper way to handle this type of event, and you can’t please everyone. But I believe we acted responsibly, as we always try to do, with the safety of students, faculty and staff in the forefront of our minds.
Director of Media