Near midnight Nov. 12, 2015, around 200 students marched onto University President Peter Salovey’s lawn on Hillhouse Avenue, carrying a string of demands for racial equity on campus. Allegations of racial discrimination at the University had shaken the student body and unleashed impassioned discussions about race at Yale.
The University made national news multiple times that week: Headlines printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post included “Yale’s Halloween advice stokes a racially charged debate,” “Yale College dean torn by racial protests” and “A confrontation over at Yale: Hundreds of students demand answers from the school’s first black dean.” Videos of Yale students screaming at then-Silliman Head of College Nicholas Christakis — whose wife sent an email Oct. 30 decrying the censure of Halloween costumes deemed culturally offensive — went viral on YouTube.
In the midst of the tumult, Salovey recruited crisis management expert Eileen O’Connor to lead the Office of Public Affairs and Communications in January 2016. As the inaugural vice president for communications, O’Connor promised to quell the media’s not-so-flattering spotlight on Yale. Unlike her predecessors at OPAC, O’Connor came from a long career as a public relations specialist for U.S. embassies in regions rife with conflict. Before moving to New Haven, O’Connor served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia and senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier, she worked alongside Lanny Davis ’67 LAW ’70 — a former chairman of the News who is now representing Donald Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen — to establish a crisis management firm, where the two lobbied for individuals and corporations facing legal challenges.
At the time of O’Connor’s appointment, Salovey told the News that he hoped she would help craft the University’s community messaging, “rather than having outside media characterize our campus as they imagine it and Yale merely responding to those characterizations.”
But after only two and a half years, Salovey sent a facultywide email last August announcing O’Connor’s resignation. While O’Connor claimed that she was resigning because she “just wanted to get back to the practice of law,” the circumstances surrounding her abrupt departure from Yale raised questions among administrators.
According to two individuals with knowledge of the situation, O’Connor broke down crying at the Office of Public Affairs and Communications’ all-staff meeting in early August when she announced that she would be resigning from her post. Until just a few days prior, O’Connor had been discussing and planning long-term projects, one of those individuals said. Both individuals added that O’Connor, along with General Counsel Alexander Dreier LAW ’95 and Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner — who both visited OPAC that week to answer questions about O’Connor’s departure — did not specify the reasons for O’Connor’s resignation. Dreier and Lindner did not respond to request for comment.
In an interview with the News on Tuesday, O’Connor said she “doesn’t necessarily want to deny” that she was fired but “stands by [Salovey’s] announcement” on her departure. In previous interviews, she had claimed she was not “the right person” for the job. In a facultywide email in August, Salovey announced that O’Connor “informed [him] of her plan to leave Yale” to “return to the practice of law and hands-on engagement in current public issues.”
As the inaugural vice president for communications hired at the peak of Yale’s reputational crisis, O’Connor served as Salovey’s most ardent defender during her tenure. Still, her aggressive interactions with administrators and journalists drew scrutiny.
The News’ account of the inner workings of OPAC portrays a well-oiled machine equipped to handle the University’s next crisis. This account emerges from interviews with 37 people, including current and former administrators, professors, external communications experts and reporters who interviewed O’Connor. On the third floor of 2 Whitney Ave., 38 administrators work to facilitate communications within Yale and manage the wider reputation of the University, a storied institution so often under fire for viral controversies.
O’Connor’s abrupt departure and the recent appointment of the new vice president for communications raises the following question: What does it mean to carry the weight of the Yale brand and manage the reputation of one of the world’s leading research universities?
PRESERVING “THE YALE BRAND”
Though the office now employs dozens of members, public relations was not always a priority for Woodbridge Hall. According to the archived documents of former University President Charles Seymour, Yale established its first public relations office — the University News Bureau — in 1940. With just one staff member, the bureau focused solely on publicizing the University president’s speeches and appearances, per the archived documents.
Despite the creation of the new office, however, Yale was ill-prepared for what may be its first documented public relations crisis in May 1947, when the since defunct periodical, Look magazine, published a photograph of a beauty contest hosted by the undergraduate humor magazine, The Yale Record. While the photo — which pictures students drinking and carousing before the banner “For God, For Country, For Yale, and For the Hell of It” — appears innocuous by today’s standards, it outraged then-Director of the News Bureau Richard Lee. In a lengthy letter to Seymour on May 7, 1947, Lee warned that similar negative stories may emerge in the future and suggested that the University formally ban all students from communicating with the press.
But when positive public opinion of Yale and New Haven dropped — amid the backdrop of the murder of an undergraduate student in 1991 and high crime rates in the Elm City — former University President Richard Levin recruited more staff members to transform the bureau to the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. Despite the office’s proactive marketing and engagement with the press, however, the complexity of its work was nothing compared to what OPAC does today, Levin noted.
In an interview with the News, former Chief Communications Officer Elizabeth Stauderman ’83 LAW ’04, who preceded O’Connor, explained that social media and the resulting ability for stories to spread quickly have dramatically increased and complicated the work of communications officers. Because information travels much faster, the University must constantly monitor the public’s reaction and promptly respond to numerous media requests once there is a crisis, she said.
During her two-year tenure, O’Connor said that she helped OPAC streamline communications between Yale administrators and develop internal fact sheets outlining the University’s administrative policies to help manage crises. The office developed a metric to evaluate communications strategies, led media training for faculty members and increased the media’s coverage on research going on at Yale, O’Connor added.
“Nowadays, people who work at the Office are quite good at handling crises because Yale gets so many of them,” Stauderman said. “People are interested in Yale and particularly in stories that are unpleasant. … Unfortunately, Yale has had a lot of those things and it takes a lot to preserve the Yale brand.”
THE “WAR ROOM”
Most of OPAC’s crisis management work takes place before the public even hears a whisper of the crisis, according to former chief communications officer Helaine Klasky, who worked under Levin from 2001 to 2009. By coordinating communication between University administrators, faculty members and students and monitoring the stories reporters are working on, OPAC can often prevent a public relations disaster before the crisis even begins, Klasky explained.
“You need good relationships with reporters, so you know what stories they are working on,” Klasky said. “And if you know what they are working on, you can try to influence or even kill [the story]. … Usually, you try to make the story less sexy — and even boring — by presenting all the facts from all perspectives, and, when possible, by discrediting the thesis.”
Still, Klasky said the office’s attempts to kill stories are seldom successful. Such crises can be generally divided into three different categories: physical, legal and reputational, Stauderman explained. During physical crises — such as a snowstorm or an active shooter on campus — OPAC works to quickly deliver the administration’s message to students and faculty members, Stauderman said. She added that because reputational crises are often accompanied by legal risks, the office works closely with the University’s general counsel to best mitigate the situation.
According to Stauderman and O’Connor, when the legal and reputational risks are deemed high, OPAC, in consultation with the University president, requests additional aid from the New York–based public relations firm, Edelman. During her five-year tenure from 2010 to 2015, Stauderman said OPAC consulted Edelman four times. For example, OPAC consulted Edelman soon after the death of a student at the Harvard-Yale tailgate in 2011 and following the 2013 allegation of sexual harassment against then-Chief of Cardiology Michael Simons, Stauderman explained. While O’Connor said that the office consulted Edelman during her tenure, she declined to comment on which crises Edelman helped the University manage.
In an interview with the News, Edelman’s former general manager Mike Kuczkowski, who has helped institutions of higher education navigate crises, said public relations firms can provide “a levelheaded and independent perspective” for University administrators. Extra personnel from those firms can also guide the University to make better decisions on when and how to issue press releases in response to the crisis, Kuczkowski added.
Stauderman said that OPAC did not have a standardized procedure for managing crises during her tenure because the fluidity and urgency of each situation forced the office to respond differently in every case.
Still, she said that the office put together a “war room” — usually a conference room on the third floor of 2 Whitney Ave. — when public relations emergencies arise. Inside the war room, the chief communications officer assigns teams tasks such as gathering the facts related to the crisis, compiling media inquiries, communicating with the general counsel’s office, updating the relevant administrators and monitoring social media and other news outlets, Stauderman said. Based on the public’s reaction, Stauderman explained that the office decides whether to publish a statement and how to best frame the issue in a press release.
“We strategically considered whether or not there should be a message, who that message should come from, and how that message would be delivered,” Stauderman said. “We always tried to be mindful that members of the community are not just reading this statement but are often experiencing the crisis together as part of the University community. We can’t just drop bad news on people without providing solutions or resources for help.”
WHEN THE TRUTH IS UNPLEASANT
Upon her arrival to the University in January 2016, O’Connor told the News that transparency would be the key to her crisis management strategy. She said that her job will be to actively engage with the media and “set the record straight, not aggressively or defensively, but in a positive way.” In an interview with the News on Tuesday, O’Connor said that “truth and transparency” were always her objectives in her communications work for companies and government agencies.
“My view has always been that it is better to give journalists the facts and the context surrounding them, instead of letting them figure it out on their own,” O’Connor said in an interview last month. “If you stonewall journalists, they often take the most negative view of [the issue at hand] because it seems like you are hiding something.”
According to the News’ former reporter and managing editor David Yaffe-Bellany ’19, O’Connor was one of the most accessible Yale administrators for the News. But during her two-and-a-half-year tenure, O’Connor often balanced her pursuit of transparency with the University’s other interests. Sometimes, O’Connor sacrificed transparency to protect members of the Yale community, she said. For example, O’Connor recalled trying to convince the News not to publish the names of students found responsible for allegations of wrongdoing in the University-Wide Committee for Sexual Misconduct proceedings. She explained that she wanted the News to honor the integrity and confidentiality of the committee proceedings and avoid the risk of making the victims and the accused more identifiable.
But protecting the confidentiality of Yale community members was not the sole reason O’Connor sacrificed transparency.
On Feb. 6, 2016, David Shimer ’18 — then-staff reporter and future editor-in-chief of the News — reported that most professional school deans were excluded from developing campus initiatives in response to the November 2015 rally. The News obtained a copy of the email O’Connor sent on Feb. 15 to the deans of professional schools, Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Yale College in response to the story. In the email, she noted that Shimer was reaching out to the deans to discuss “matters related to policies and procedures arising from the student protests this fall.”
“While I will not presume to tell anyone what to say, in my professional opinion, I don’t think it helps us as a University community to engage in extended conversations questions that go over what has already been reported,” O’Connor wrote in the email. “So please do not feel obligated to respond and feel free to say to David that you think enough has been said about this and if you had any issues as policies are implemented, you can communicate those directly in personal correspondence or through regular meetings with the President and Provost.”
In an interview with the News, O’Connor maintained that the email was not intended to discourage administrators from talking to the media. Instead, the email was sent out to offer help to administrators who might be confused by Shimer’s questions, she explained.
“I see how [the email] was read, but I meant to offer help if [the administrators] need help communicating with the YDN,” O’Connor told the News on Tuesday.
O’Connor added that this email was the only instance during her tenure when she suggested that communicating with the media might not be beneficial for the University. But according to Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund, members of the University cabinet — a key advisory body for Salovey including the University’s vice presidents and professional school deans — are frequently advised not to speak to the press about certain administrative issues. Vermund declined to specify what those issues were.
“The President speaks for the University,” Vermund said. “You can’t have 15 people representing the University. You have to have some coherence. In that sense, we are like a White House — a malfunctioning White House.”
Vermund later clarified that he believes the President should speak for the University, and if other administrators also tried to do so, Yale would be like a “malfunctioning White House.”
Kristen Brown, assistant vice president for strategic communications at Duke University, said corporations often discourage their employees from speaking to the media to minimize negative press about themselves. Still, because institutions of higher education operate with different goals and structures, their communications officers should strive for more transparency, Brown added.
Former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 agreed that OPAC should not attempt to conceal disagreements within the University by discouraging its community members from talking to the press. While the objective of corporate public relations offices is to make the company look good, communications officers at universities should strive to present the truth, even when the truth is unpleasant, Chauncey explained. Stauderman added that although reputation is as important to universities as it is to corporations, there are values that are more important to higher education institutions than its reputation.
“Curtailing anyone’s speech in the slightest way would be an anathema to the whole idea of Yale,” Stauderman said. “In corporations, the employees are often discouraged or even forbidden from saying critical things about the company. … But that’s not how we are going to play the game. At Yale, we have thousands of faculty members and students, and each of them are entitled to express their opinion in whichever way.”
“STRONG” AND “FORCEFUL”
Even before the racially charged protests in 2015, students had been advocating for Yale to stop honoring John C. Calhoun, one of slavery’s most fervent advocates. On the last week of April 2016, a high-ranking administrator informed the News that the University decided to retain the name of Calhoun College but replace the title of residential college master with “head of college.”
According to two former editors of the News, Shimer approached Salovey in his office on April 27, 2016 and asked him to comment on the story, which was scheduled to be published later that day. Per the story, the University had planned to release the Calhoun decision on the evening of April 28, the second-to-last day of classes and two days before Spring Fling — Yale’s annual undergraduate music festival. The editors requested anonymity because their jobs do not allow them to talk to the press.
Salovey declined to comment for the story, and the News published the story as Shimer walked out of Woodbridge Hall, the editors said. According to the email, the then-managing editors sent to the News staff a few hours later, the News broke that Yale had decided not to rename Calhoun College at 5:09 p.m. At 5:37 p.m., Salovey sent out a universitywide email announcing that the term “master” would be changed to “head of college,” that the name of Calhoun College would remain and that the new residential colleges would be named after Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray LAW ’65 and Benjamin Franklin.
According to the two former editors, O’Connor called Shimer after the story was published to chastise him for releasing the decision before Salovey’s official announcement. In an interview with the News, O’Connor acknowledged that she may have had “a tense exchange” with Shimer at the time and said she did not want the News to break the story about the University’s decision because Salovey wanted to “put the decision in its fullest context” and “notify the deans first … because some students will come to them with questions.”
“My editors and I were very focused on reporting proactively, fairly and accurately on the naming decisions,” Shimer said. “President Salovey actually told me later that he respected how the News handled the story, which said quite a lot, given how tense things felt in the moment, particularly with O’Connor and her team.”
In an interview with the News, O’Connor said she was “aggressive in preventing leaks that could be put out of context” and in advocating for what she deemed “fair coverage” for Yale. She added that she was “strong in [her] advocacy for the facts” and often “forceful to point out that the direction reporters were headed were ill-informed or untrue.”
According to the two anonymous editors, O’Connor’s exchanges with Shimer were often tense. Both editors recalled Shimer describing his conversations with O’Connor as involving expletives. Former managing editor Yaffe-Bellany added that O’Connor occasionally engaged in “shouting matches” with reporters at the News when she deemed their coverage to be inaccurate or unfair. In an interview with the News in November, O’Connor said shouting is not an effective way of marketing the University and said she “would apologize to [the reporters] … who perceived her as yelling at them.” And on Tuesday, she added that she does not recall using expletives while communicating with student journalists. But later, she clarified that she may have used expletives on a few occasions.
“If B.S. is an expletive, I guess [I’ve done] so,” O’Connor said. “Maybe ‘fucking.’ … I spent most of my time in war zones, so I may have picked up a few bad habits.”
In April 2017, when the News published a story detailing controversial business dealings involving Stephen Schwarzman ’69, O’Connor held three off-the-record meetings with Shimer and Yaffe-Bellany, who were the News’ editor-in-chief and a reporter at the time, respectively. In 2015, Schwarzman gave $150 million to the University for the construction of the Schwarzman Center, a new student life center named in his honor.
Last spring, O’Connor put all the meetings with the News on the record.
In an interview with the News last April, O’Connor said she called the meetings — one of which Salovey attended — to discuss reporting that Yale “had issues with.” The same month, Shimer said in a statement to the News that “this unusually tense meeting — which was clearly and unfortunately meant to intimidate us — had less to do with inadvertent factual errors, which the News is always eager to correct, than with the pressure the administration was under.”
But O’Connor’s old colleague and crisis management expert Davis defended O’Connor, explaining that she “simply did her job of defending the University … and [its] President.” He added that there is a difference between being forceful and disrespectful, which he described as “using personal terms that disparage someone.”
“My concern is not about [O’Connor’s] method of delivery,” Davis said. “My concern is about the hypersensitivity of people in the community. … Excuse me, why are you being so sensitive? … Eileen O’Connor is delivering her message forcefully because she is defending a client, but I’ve never once seen Eileen be disrespectful.”
Stauderman said University communications officers have traditionally been less aggressive in their public relations operations than their counterparts in corporations and government agencies. She added that “castigating a reporter” has never been part of the culture of the higher education institution’s public relations offices.
“As a public relations officer, you are trying to build an image for the university, and that type of aggressive behavior isn’t something that would further the institutions’ goals,” University of Southern California’s communications professor Colleen Keough told the News. “The role of the university … as an institution of higher education is to set a standard of what appropriate discourse should be. Despite all the incredible pressures that degrade public discourse, we should not be involved in the race to the bottom.”
NOT THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB?
On Nov. 26, the News met with O’Connor at Blue State Coffee on Wall Street. In an interview that lasted almost half an hour, O’Connor spoke about her background as a journalist and crisis management expert, her work at Yale and her firm belief in the importance of transparency. O’Connor emphasized that she “cared deeply for Yale and worked as hard as [she] could” to advocate for the University.
Nine administrators interviewed by the News — including Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling — said O’Connor streamlined the University’s internal communications system and effectively marketed Yale. But some administrators soon realized that government and corporate legal crisis management may have diverged too much from what communications should look like at an institution of higher education. U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan — O’Connor’s former workplaces — are “far away from [Yale] not only in geography but also in institutional profile,” said an administrator who requested anonymity to avoid offending O’Connor.
O’Connor’s two-and-a-half-year tenure at the University highlights this distinction between university and corporate public relations. Compared to her predecessors, O’Connor advocated more forcefully and aggressively for Yale. Pondering her tenure at the University at one of Blue State’s granite tables, O’Connor acknowledged that her unique background may have posed difficulties in adjusting to her new role. Last Friday, Salovey announced that higher education veteran Nate Nickerson — Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s vice president for communications — will succeed O’Connor, ending a search that began last summer when O’Connor left the post.
“I had a different background from [previous officers leading the Office of Public Affairs and Communications]. Maybe that was bad, and I had the wrong kind of experience,” O’Connor said. “I came from working in war zones where the stakes are super high. People could die if something went wrong. … I’m not perfect, and I’ve made mistakes, and I apologize for those mistakes. If the job I did here wasn’t acceptable, then whatever, that’s fine. ”
Mumbling words, O’Connor began to tear up as she draped her gray scarf around her neck and left the coffee shop.
Serena Cho | email@example.com
Clarification, Jan. 28: After the date of publication, Vermund clarified that he believes the President should speak for the University, and that Yale would be like a “malfunctioning White House” if many administrators were to comment on the same issue. The story has been updated to accurately reflect Vermund’s sentiments.