UC Davis spent $175K to scrub pepper-spray incident off Web

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A California university reeling from the pepper-spraying of student protesters spent over $175,000 trying to scrub it off the Internet.

Contracting documents published Wednesday by The Sacramento Bee revealed the University of California, Davis and its embattled chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, hired two consulting firms for Google search strategies to counter the negative results about the 2011 incident.

University officials defended the contracts Thursday, even as Google still showed “pepper spray” as the most common search connected to UC Davis. A video of a campus police officer casually spraying a group of Occupy protesters with their arms locked together led to an outcry.

“Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011,” said a proposal by the Maryland company obtained by the Bee through a public records request.

NOV. 18 2011 FILE PHOTO.Wayne Tilcock/AP

Then-University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike deployed pepper spray on Occupy UC Davis protesters on Nov. 18, 2011. Neither Pike nor another officer involved with the incident still work at the public university.

The proposal — which led to a six-month, $15,000-per-month agreement in January 2013 — promised that the public relations firm would “expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the chancellor.”

The public university ultimately paid the Maryland firm $92,970.73 for its services in 2013. The following summer, UC Davis hired Sacramento consultants ID Media Partners for an $82,500 contract to “design and execute a comprehensive search engine results management strategy.”

“The following plan is based on our discussions to date and our understanding of your primary goal: to achieve a reasonable balance of positive natural search results on common terms concerning UC Davis and Chancellor Katehi,” the company, which does business under the name IDMLOCO, wrote in another proposal obtained by the Bee.


UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, left, talks to students occupying a campus building over a proposed fee increase in November 2014. Student activists now staging a sit-in outside her office are calling on her to resign.

Representatives for the two public relations companies didn’t immediately respond Thursday night to requests for comment.

“It is troubling that the administration chose to spend scarce public dollars and to nearly double its PR budget when tuition soared, course offerings were slashed and California resident students were being shut out,” Democratic state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who has called on Katehi to step down, told the Bee. “These findings just raise more questions about university priorities.”

The newspaper published both proposals and contract agreements Thursday as student protesters continued a month-long sit-in outside Katehi’s office they said would keep going until she resigns. Katehi has faced more criticism since word surfaced last month of her seats on the corporate boards of a textbook company and a for-profit university under federal scrutiny.

A February 2015 shows the UC Davis campus. Officials at the 34,000-student university defended the contracts Thursday.Joseph DeSantis/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

A February 2015 shows the UC Davis campus. Officials at the 34,000-student university defended the contracts Thursday.

University officials responded in a statement Thursday describing the 34,000-student school’s $5.4 million external communications budget as a small fraction of its $4.3 billion budget, which “compares favorably with other institutions of higher learning.”

“As part of this overall communications strategy, it is important that 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 is not lost during a campus crisis, including the crisis that ensued following the extremely regrettable incident when police pepper-sprayed student protesters in 2011,” officials said.

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