As the sale of Rice University's student radio station KTRU to the University of Houston was finalized this summer, public relations teams from the University of Houston and Rice worried over possible leaks of the news and an ensuing "press frenzy."
Before the story of the pending sale was broken by the Houston Press on Aug. 16, the teams – Karen Clarke and Richard Bonnin at UH and Linda Thrane and B.J. Almond at Rice – fretted that information had gotten out ahead of schedule, according to e-mails obtained by Texas Watchdog.
A staffer at KUHF, the University of Houston’s public radio station, had told a DJ at KTRU about the pending sale as both schools fought to keep the news private, fearing public sentiment could ruin the deal.
On Aug. 8, Thrane sent an e-mail to John Proffitt, general manager of KUHF: "Will [Robedee, KTRU general manager] says someone from KUHF told a KTRU deejay about the sale. Let's try to batten down the hatches."
Later that day, Thrane again e-mailed Proffitt: "Will isn't offering any more info about your leaker. Hope nothing messes up the deal twixt now and the full board meeting."
Proffitt had responded, "So far so good -- no inquiries, and nothing in the blogosphere as far as I can tell with some Google searching. In my overnight investigations, we’ve come up with a possible suspect on our staff.”
In the same e-mail, Proffitt said that the agenda for U of H’s finance and administration committee meeting was posted on Aug. 6, which included mention of the purchase of an unnamed radio station.
“Doesn’t identify the seller, but one doesn’t need a PhD from RU to figure it out,” Proffitt wrote.
Almond, of the Rice PR team, said in an interview that the sale of KTRU was done under a "special circumstance" but declined to describe that condition.
“We have said consistently that this was an isolated exception to the way Rice conducts business,” Almond said. “Usually, there is a very transparent procedure. This business transaction required confidentiality.”
Thrane did not return an e-mail.
'PROBING QUESTIONS' FROM DISSENTING REGENT
The deal didn't get out for another week, and UH’s effort to keep the $9.9 million sale from the public until the last possible minute succeeded. At one point, an agent of the school encouraged Rice to concoct a "cover story" to keep students from guessing the real reason a consultant needed access to the KTRU station, Texas Watchdog reported Thursday.
The meeting of the finance and administration committee included some testy moments, although it was not covered by any media outlet. Had one been present, there would have been no concern about a leaker – a regent, unnamed in the e-mails but most likely committee member Nandita Berry, protested the sale.
"The vote was not unanimous," Bonnin wrote to Thrane. "One of our regents opposed the proposal and asked very pointed and probing questions. It’s fortunate that no media attended."
“Do you expect that regent to try to recruit others to his point of view ahead of the full board meeting?” Thrane asked Bonnin. "Can you give me a sense of what the questions were?”
“I don’t think her point of view will gain any traction,” Bonnin wrote back. “Her questions were focused on the specific benefits to UH of operating two public radio stations. She also noted that KUHF currently devotes only a small fraction of its programming to UH news and events.”
Berry later said she did not agree with the deal. She did not return a call Thursday.
On Aug. 16, Houston Press reporter Chris Gray called both Rice and U of H, asking about the sale, according to e-mails.
The PR teams huddled. A press release had been drafted, and Houston Chronicle reporter Jeannie Kever had been told of the deal, according to an e-mail to everyone from Bonnin, and had agreed to withhold the information until Aug. 17, the day of the Board of Regents meeting.
“If the Houston Press or some other media outlet breaks the story, then the embargo can’t be enforced. We will not distribute the release until after the BOR vote,” Bonnin instructed.
Thrane e-mailed the team at UH and asked if Kever had been given the sale information, naming KTRU. She advised against telling anyone, “including the KTRU folks, until tomorrow morning. That way, we don’t risk the KTRU folks going into full roar, and triggering a press frenzy, ahead of your regents’ action. … However, Richard said you are thinking about giving the story to Kever now.”
Clarke responded that it had already been discussed among the team that Kever would be given the story under embargo: “I am perplexed, since I recall you saying that you agreed that for both Rice and UH, preserving our relationship with her is in both of our best interests.”
PR TEAMS AT UH, RICE BICKER OVER PUBLIC PERCEPTION
The Houston Press item prompted an outcry from angry KTRU supporters.
On Aug. 17, after the deal had been approved by the Board of Regents, the team bickered again, this time over public perception. Clarke e-mailed Thrane, asking her if a letter sent by Rice to its alumni stated that UH had pursued the KTRU sale: “This appears to be fueling lots of chatter about UH pursuing ‘the destruction of KTRU.’ If true, it’s important for you to be aware of the negative impact this is having at the leadership and board level.”
Thrane shot back:
“Per our previous conversations, we agreed not to go down this route. You are raising a whole new set of questions and issues. The agreed on, and true, story is that Rice decided about a year ago to test market interest in KTRU. It wasn’t until earlier that this year (sic) that discussions with UH grew serious enough for the Rice administration to seek approval from its board of trustees in March to proceed with the negotiations, which led to a UH offer and culminated in the current agreement just approved by the UH board. ...
"I don’t think trying to say we pushed the tower on you, or you pushed the sale on us, helps either of us.”
Other stories arose, including a Texas Watchdog story that noted UH regents may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to name KTRU as the station of purchase on the agenda.
An e-mail from Thrane to Clarke and Bonnin at UH on Monday, Aug. 23, noted the Texas Watchdog story, and said she was “very concerned about several statements that seem to be showing up in several places."
She urged the two to "stop saying the deal is not done, which only motivates people trying to scuttle the deal. … I know you share my concern that UH and Rice will appear at odds, rather than united, and further fuel our various critics. If this falls apart, we’ll both be left with the worst of both worlds – plenty of criticism, loss of credibility and no deal.”
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or email@example.com.
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