By Peter J. Suter
In preparation for two measures planned for the November ballots, City College administrators proposed media training and two sets of protocols concerning how the Board of Trustees communicates with the press.
In addition to offering one-on-one print, radio and television media training to the board, Media Relations Director Connie Chan and Government Relations Director Jeff Hamilton presented three sets of recommendations the Jan. 11 board meeting. Those recommendations accompanied six others written by Board Facilitator Helen Benjamin.
“I’m here really informally to lay down some recommendations for you to start thinking about a communications protocol that will work for you as collective body,” Chan said.
Chan gave advice for three kinds of situations. She first advised that trustees refer all media inquiries about college operations to the administration, adding this applies to facts alone and is for accuracy.
“Because you meet on a monthly basis, there are probably going to be times when, in between those discussions, facts are going to change,” Chan said.
She advised the trustees to identify themselves to reporters as individuals rather than on the behalf of the entire board when speaking about policy decisions. She also advised that trustees follow a protocol to either defer reporters to Board President Brigitte Davila or a specific trustee designated to speak about a particular subject.
In November, San Francisco voters will decide whether to pass a $400 million to $800 million City College facilities bond, as well as a proposal to extend the Free City program for a decade.
“Whether bond or not, this next year is going to require more clear messaging and messaging discipline,” Rocha said.
Trustee Shanell Williams agreed with Chan here, adding that for legal purposes, it is non-negotiable to refer to the media relations office.
“I got contacted [about a] recent issue around our employees — on a sexual conduct issue — and this is a subject dear to my heart,” Williams said. “But when dealing with human resources and an employee-related issue, even though it’s really hard to do, I had to [refer to Chan] because things can get sticky.”
Chan advised the trustees to be cognizant of identifying themselves as individuals when campaigning for office.
Chancellor Mark Rocha, however, felt that that such a separation was a distinction without a difference.
“There’s no way I can make a distinction between Mark and Chancellor Rocha,” Rocha said. “No one is interested in my comments because I’m Mark.”
Benjamin, who agreed that elected officials cannot separate themselves from their positions when making statements for the public, provided the six written protocols for engaging with the press.
The draft protocols would have trustees refer all public and media communications to Davila and Rocha. They would also make any public statements represent the board’s position as a whole.
The board disagreed with all but two of the six protocols.
Most controversial was the recommendation that any public presentations or statements about the college by trustees must have prior approval by the Board of Trustees at a meeting. If impossible, prior approval would instead be required by the board president.
“It wouldn’t be a problem if the administration just recommends it to the board,” First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder said. “Where this is problematic when dealing with the First Amendment is enforcing protocols in writing.”
Trustee John Rizzo agreed with Chan’s recommendations, but stated that anything put in writing must be clarified. When asked by Benjamin, Rizzo said he saw no need for the written protocols altogether.
“We have an obligation to speak to our constituents, and to tell the truth, so there will be times when we are obligated to [speak to] the press,” Rizzo said.
He pointed to the White House’s criticisms and demagoguery of the press, stating that the board’s oath of office as elected officials requires them to uphold the U.S. Constitution.