It was 7:17 a.m. Friday morning, and the viewers of CBS’s The Early Show were about to be taken live to a small room in the basement of Street Hall. Sitting before a blue backdrop emblazoned with “Yale,” dressed in the same black suit and purple necktie he would wear in a classroom later that day, the University’s newest professor waited for his introduction.
“Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has a new job: teaching a course on faith and globalization at Yale University,” anchor Julie Chen said. “He joins us from New Haven, Connecticut.”
The three-minute interview was not Blair’s only television appearance Friday. At 7:26 a.m., he repeated the performance on Fox News. Ten minutes later, MSNBC welcomed him for an interview, followed by CNN at 7:56 a.m. ABC and Al Jazeera also went live to Yale’s television studio before the morning was over.
The Yale backdrop loomed large every time.
The television interviews Friday were but a small part of the press coverage of Blair’s arrival at Yale. Citing the newspaper articles published around the world, Blair’s appearances on television and even an interview with the comedian Jon Stewart on Thursday, experts on media strategy say the torrent of publicity that came with the former prime minister’s classroom debut last Friday will likely help boost Yale’s image domestically and in Blair’s home country, even if he remains unpopular there because of his support for the war in Iraq.
Shortly after Blair announced his intention to join the Yale faculty in March, University President Richard Levin admitted he routinely asks world leaders to consider teaching at Yale upon their exit from public office. As Levin sees it, the University only stands to gain, he said.
“It’s my habit,” he said. “Why not?”
It’s a habit that is clearly paying off. There seems little doubt the burst of publicity last week was worth the nominal fee being paid to Blair and the $200,000 the University has pledged to donate to his foundation.
Yale administrators quickly emphasized that their decision to recruit Blair to the faculty was motivated not out of a desire for P.R., but for the desire, for the sake of students here, to have, in Levin’s words, “someone of this stature involved in teaching at Yale.”
“But there’s no doubt that the national press exposure is something that’s positive for the University,” Levin said in a telephone interview Sunday. “It shows Yale is a place that can attract people of this caliber and is truly committed to grappling with the most important issues in world affairs, which is something I’m very passionate about.”
Blair, who arrived on campus Thursday night, taught his first class Friday and then spoke to 2,600 Yale students, faculty members and staff in a conversation with Levin in Woolsey Hall. Reporters crammed into a classroom in the Yale Law School to watch a video feed of the former prime minister’s seminar, then moved over to Woolsey for his much-anticipated talk.
There, almost a dozen videographers crammed their equipment onto a platform at the back of the hall, filling it up entirely 45 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin and forcing other journalists into the aisles.
“This is a very zooey environment,” said Dan Petrolito, a production technician for CT-N, the Connecticut public affairs network. “It is hot and crazy and people are fighting for spots on the riser.”
Reporters from two major wire services, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, were also in attendance, as were reporters from several British newspapers, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. The publicity Yale garnered was global: The news of Blair’s appointment ran in publications as varied as the Hindustan Times in India and the Nanaimo Daily News in British Columbia. A search on LexisNexis this weekend yielded more than 60 articles on Blair’s teaching job.
Overall, about 50 journalists received credentials for Friday’s festivities, said Helaine Klasky, Yale’s director of public affairs.
And by the time Blair took the podium Friday afternoon, the media onslaught was already well-underway. The former prime minister sat for no fewer than seven television interviews early Friday morning, six from the Media & Technology Services studio in Street Hall and another, for the BBC, from the president’s ceremonial residence at 43 Hillhouse Avenue.
All together, they gave Yale ample exposure on national television, the kind of exposure for which university media czars lust. During his appearances on CBS, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, for instance, Yale and Blair’s course drew mention 22 times.
All of that will do well for Yale’s image, said Frank Dobisky, a former AP reporter and the president of Dobisky Associates, a New Hampshire firm that specializes in media relations for universities.
“He’s a guy who has had a first-hand seat at history,” he said in a telephone interview. “He could have gone to any number of universities. … Obviously it’s a real coup for Yale to land him.”
Even so, Blair’s presence won’t necessarily bring much public-relations benefit to Yale in the long term, Dobisky said. While he agreed the former prime minister adds a positive boost to Yale’s reputation, he said he doubted it would have much influence on students’ interest in attending the University, given Yale’s long-standing status as an elite school.
Regardless, the wave of publicity is refreshing to Yale administrators simply because it is positive in nature. Yale is no stranger to headlines, especially controversial ones — from the tempest over Aliza Shvarts’ eyebrow-raising art project last spring to the hullabaloo over the 2005 admission of former Taliban diplomat Rahmatullah Hashemi to a non-degree program.
This time, however, the attention could not be more positive. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called Blair’s class “fascinating.” Stewart, the night before, begged for a place in it, even as he chastised him for his “inexplicable” friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush ’68 and his support for the war in Iraq.
Indeed, in spite of his lack of support in Britain for his backing of the war, Blair nevertheless “has the gift of being a kind of international rock star,” as J.F.O. McAllister ’77 LAW ’86, the former London bureau chief for Time Magazine, put it in a telephone interview.
McAllister said London’s chattering classes have taken notice of Blair’s gig at the University. “It has raised the profile of Yale among a chunk of the British public,” he said.
—Catherine Cheney contributed reporting