Just hours after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed on campus, the University of Utah reached out to a national crisis communication firm for help in framing the situation. The school wanted to know how it should answer questions from the media and — its primary focus — how it could maintain its public image.
For the company’s advice on that, the U. paid nearly $50,000. It paid the same adviser another $8,175 months later, before a retiring administrator discussed the case on “Dateline.”
It’s the most the university has ever spent on outside public relations after an emergency. And that’s despite another student — ChenWei Guo — being shot and killed there nearly a year before McCluskey’s slaying.
Guo’s case, while tragic, was random, said spokesman Chris Nelson, part of the in-house, 11-person University Communications Office. A gunman came to campus, stumbled upon him and killed him to steal his car. “It was a different situation,” Nelson said, and the school paid the adviser a far smaller sum for guidance.
McCluskey, though, had warned campus police several times that she was worried about the man who later shot her on Oct. 22. Her experience exposed shortcomings by the school in responding to her concerns. And so the U. sought help.
Accordingly, the first piece of advice the university got from the firm at 4:56 a.m. the day after McCluskey died was about trying to turn the focus to the good things the U. and its officers were doing.
An employee at the company, OnPoint Enterprises, suggested: “It would be prudent to review all of the campus safety measures so that we can share, in a non-defensive way, the lengths we go to protect our students, faculty and the entire university community.”
The Salt Lake Tribune received the invoice for the communication company’s services, as well as conversations employees there had with staff at the U., through a public records request. The internal discussion provides a look behind the scenes at how the university viewed McCluskey’s death, how administrators strategized to tell people about it and how they weighed what they said.
At one point the consultants raised the concern that the school might be criticized for “racial profiling” of McCluskey’s killer, Melvin S. Rowland, who was black and later died by suicide, or “‘slut shaming’ and victim-blaming” of McCluskey.
McCluskey, 21, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm by Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole who she had briefly dated and who had lied to her about his age and criminal history. After they broke up on Oct. 9, she had reached out to campus police several times.
Asking for help
McCluskey’s parents have been vocal about their frustrations that the school didn’t help their daughter when she came to the police station to report harassment and extortion by Rowland in the weeks before the shooting. Now, Matt McCluskey said, the timing and the focus of their media strategy confirm for him that the school was more worried about its appearance than safety.
“We think this says something about the university’s priorities,” he added in an email to The Tribune.
It’s certainly not uncommon for a school to hire an outside communications team during a crisis. Occidental College in Los Angeles did after it was put under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases. Penn State did after a hazing-related dead in 2017.
In the days after McCluskey’s slaying, as news coverage raised questions about the university’s response, emails between the school’s administrators and firm employees acknowledged that the worst pushback was over how the school handled McCluskey’s concerns. But the firm assured the school those were simply “hurdles” that they “will address” with time as they hope that the focus will turn back to Rowland, “the true villain in this case.”
Firm employees maintain that they intend to rise above the difficult situation by “being committed to authenticity and transparency” but lay out no plans for improvement. One message from the company’s leader, Jeff Hunt, reads: “I think everyone can sleep well knowing we are living up to this guiding principle.”
Hunt declined to respond to this story, saying: “I really don’t, as a matter of practice, comment on work that I do with clients. It’s confidential work that I do for them.”
The conversations with his business, based in Texas, and the U. continued into November with a bill for $48,947.20 that included itemized costs for flights, meals and cars.
Hunt has helped the school with other public relations campaigns — including fundraising efforts — for the past seven or eight years, although the name of his company has changed over time, Nelson said. It is now called Legend Labs.
Nelson could not find exactly how much the school paid OnPoint Enterprises after Guo’s murder, but said, “we didn’t use them as much.”
About the price for help responding to McCluskey’s case, Nelson added: “I would stand by that. That was valuable to us.”
Overall, the crisis firm was hired to look at how the media was covering the story and how other universities handled similar situations, Nelson said. The U. brought in the outside company to provide a fresh perspective and to make sure it didn’t miss anything, he said.
The point was to tell the University of Utah how to respond appropriately.
“If the issue is big enough, we ask for some outside help,” Nelson said. "... We certainly have very smart people who work at the University of Utah. But it’s always good to have someone on the outside give a fresh look at things.”
‘Racial profiling’ or ‘slut shaming’?
On Friday, Oct. 26 — four days after McCluskey was killed — U. staff and the communications firm discussed how they should talk about Rowland. They were concerned about saying much because of the color of his skin.
“If we say simply that they were worried about his presence [on campus], but not in the context of breaking any rules, you potentially get into the whole racial profiling thing,” reads, in part, one message from the firm to Nelson.
An employee at the company suggested that the school focus on how, instead, McCluskey was breaking the dorm overnight policy by letting Rowland stay over too much. That, the individual says, “is an objectively determinable violation of the University’s rules.”
He goes on to say: “On the other hand, I am concerned that it may be read as ‘slut shaming’ and victim-blaming, and an effort by the university to deflect responsibility.”
The conversation, which was about a possible statement to be read by U. Police Chief Dale Brophy, comes in the middle of more than 30 pages of emails.
Nelson said the university never ended up using the prepared remarks on that topic and said the “shaming” comment was tone deaf. The school already would have chosen not to talk about race or relationship decisions, he added.
“The university in no way condones the use of such an abhorrent and offensive term. The feedback provided in that email never found its way past my inbox and was not shared with the university’s administration,” Nelson added.
Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said regardless of the ultimate use, having that word in a casual conversation shows, to some extent, that those involved passed judgment on McCluskey and felt she might be to blame for the situation.
Oxborrow is concerned that those who are supposed to be experts in crisis communication — and are getting $60,000 from Utah taxpayers — would be “using a term that’s so antiquated.”
“It doesn’t matter what Lauren did in her choices about where she shared her personal space,” she said. “That doesn’t preclude her from being protected and her right to safety which she asked for over and over again.”
In a news conference three days after McCluskey’s killing, Brophy and university President Ruth Watkins announced that an independent investigation would focus only on the department’s policies, not on how individual officers handled her repeated contacts with them.
“Their actions aren’t in question but the protocols,” Brophy said.
Watkins added: “Let me be clear: I have great faith that our university police department worked diligently on this incident.”
That position shifted at Watkins’ subsequent Nov. 2 news conference, when she said three law enforcement experts would investigate the police department, its policies, and — despite the earlier statements — the “actions taken by individual officers.”
After that concluded, Hunt at OnPoint Enterprises wrote: “Bravo!! Well done.”
They shouldn’t be congratulating themselves, said Shira Tarrant, an expert in gender justice issues and a professor at Cal State Long Beach.
“The missed opportunity in this is how they might show genuine concern,” she said. “What are they doing in signs of interpersonal violence and abuse? What are they doing in educating and teaching about masculinity and violence?”
The independent review of the university said officers largely ignored McCluskey’s concerns and were inexperienced in working with domestic violence victims. The emails do not mention the comment Watkins made in December that the report “does not offer any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.”
McCluskey’s parents were highly critical of that statement and said Thursday that it was part of the impetus for them filing a lawsuit against the university. Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mom, said it made her “physically ill.”
The last assist
The review was the subject, too, of a recent episode of NBC’s “Dateline."
On the show, Barbara Snyder, the U.’s retiring vice president for student affairs, said she wished “people could know how hard it’s been” on the staff at the University of Utah to respond to the tragedy and the blame. She wiped away tears.
Hunt’s team worked with Snyder for a full day of training to prepare for the interview, Nelson said. But, he added: “The university does not have a standing contract with this company.”