Imagine a university crisis happens – another Brothelgate, perhaps, or a sex toy demonstration at the Rock. The media goes crazy while students, alumni and parents demand explanations. The university has to release a statement — one that is tactful and truthful, pleases as many people as possible and, ideally, lets the university maintain its public image.
This is where Vice President of University Relations Alan Cubbage and his 40-person staff step in. They are responsible for media relations, the Northwestern News website and publications such as the alumni magazine.
“We support all areas of the university through a variety of communications,” Cubbage says, listing Facebook, Twitter, multiple publications and the website. “Our duty is to make the rest of the university look good.”
In a situation with issues of public concern that have potential legal implications, Tom Cline, Northwestern’s general counsel, helps to develop an appropriate message. He says there can be tension between the university’s goal of being transparent and the legal restrictions on some information, such as during a lawsuit.
“From a public relations perspective, the rule of thumb is to get as much of the story out as you can,” Cline says. “We’ll work with University Relations to draw the line in what can be discussed and what can’t.”
Another issue he deals with is choosing appropriate responses to inaccurate or incomplete stories. A response might prolong the story’s time in the media, but some corrections are worth making.
“Even if it’s a short news cycle, if years later you get a brand new issue that is similar in scope, a reporter will go back through the old news,” Cline says. “They’ll pick up the old story and reprint the inaccurate information.”
Cline rarely speaks to the media, because the rule of thumb is to refer all requests to University Relations. Although there may be legal constraints, university officials must stick together, which prompted Cubbage to respond with “whatever President Schapiro said” to a question about conflicting press releases during last year’s debacle over the course on human sexuality.
In most cases, this means Cubbage is brought to the forefront. For example, seven former basketball and football players were indicted by federal grand juries in 1998 for point-shaving and betting on their own losses. The university initiated the investigation and turned over their information, which Cubbage says helped improve Northwestern’s situation, but that did not make the announcement easy.
“The U.S. attorney talks about how this is a betrayal and what a great shame it is and then, ‘now Mr. Cubbage will speak for the university,’” he recalls. “That’s not a great day.”
As a Northwestern alum and professor who has held his position as vice president for 12 years, Cubbage has learned to keep his cool when people insult his beloved alma mater. More importantly, he sees plenty of humor in his job.
For example, in 1999, a senior named Ryan Du Val painted a replica of the Sistine Chapel on his Bobb-McCulloch ceiling. When told the University intended to paint over the artwork, Du Val got a lawyer. The story made national news, even an appearance in People magazine, and the university decided to let him keep it for the year rather than face a lawsuit.
“Northwestern students are a very creative lot,” Cubbage says. “You have to have a good sense of humor.”
Cubbage compares his staff to stagehands, making sure the set is just right and the students and faculty members are in the spotlight. Usually, the staff remains invisible, and that is just the way he believes it should be. “Nobody ever came out of their undergraduate years and said, ‘boy, I had a great communications vice president,’” explains Cubbage. “They don’t know who I am, and they shouldn’t know who I am. The only time that I think our office comes to the fore is when things go wrong and then that’s when you put your mud-spattered PR guy out to be the frontman.”
Al Cubbage has weathered a lot of scandals in his time as vice president of University Relations. He's even got mementos of some on his door.