Erie Community College spent $8,205 for an outside public relations firm to write a press release and plan communications strategy for the August retirement announcement of President Jack F. Quinn Jr.
Quinn hired Eric Mower + Associates, even though the college has employees on staff who regularly write press releases and deal with the media.
The college’s Board of Trustees was not required to approve the firm's hiring because the expense was less than $10,000. But a trustee noticed the amount on a ledger of monthly expenses by the president’s office and asked about it.
The trustee, Timothy C. Callan, called the expense unnecessary and inappropriate.
“I don’t find it reasonable,” he said. “This was not an event that needed an outside firm to be involved."
The expense was particularly disappointing, he added, because the college has been raising tuition, dipping into its savings, cutting back on course offerings and preparing early retirement buyouts in an effort to balance its books. Tuition increased by 3 percent to $4,733 for 2016-17, as college trustees had to close a $7.5 million gap in a $108.5 million budget. The trustees also cut 50 vacant positions and used $1.5 million in reserves.
“The dollar amount in the grand scheme of the college’s budget may have been modest, but it’s also the symbolism of it,” said Callan, who is also the deputy budget director for Erie County.
Some other trustees privately expressed their displeasure about the expense.
Quinn announced his intent to retire in June 2017 during a meeting Aug. 22 with the Editorial Board of The News. Quinn was joined at the meeting by Dennis Murphy, chairman of the ECC board. He handed out a two-page press release that included facts about his long career in public service, including his 12 years in Congress, eight years as Hamburg supervisor and decade as a middle school English teacher in Orchard Park. He and Murphy then answered a variety of questions from members of the Editorial Board, as well as a News reporter. No representative of Eric Mower + Associates was present during the interview. The college also sent copies of the press release to other area media.
Quinn said the firm did much more than write a press release. Quinn’s retirement also dovetailed with the groundbreaking for the college’s $30 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Math building in Amherst, and college officials wanted to capitalize on potential branding opportunities.
“It was in my view more than just a retirement announcement,” Murphy said.
The college first contacted Stephen Bell, senior partner and director of crisis and reputation management at Eric Mower + Associates, in May. Bell met at least twice with Quinn, Murphy and Stephen Boyd, former board chairman, to work on “messaging” and to decide on how the retirement announcement should unfold.
“There’s nothing other than to say they wanted to make certain there wasn’t any misinformation or wrong information out there. So I think it’s safe to say we went to some experts,” Quinn said.
Some college officials also feared word of Quinn’s retirement leaking out early if they handled release of the news through the college's public relations staff.
Boyd said he sought an expert because so much inaccurate and slanted information about Quinn and the college had been published on blogs and in weekly newspapers in the year prior to the retirement announcement. Quinn and the trustees were heavily criticized following a state comptroller’s audit that found senior executive staff received unauthorized raises and bonuses of more than $100,000 between 2012 and 2015 and also that the college hired contractors without seeking competitive bids for their services and in some cases without written contracts.
Boyd was worried about the potential for negative publicity to undercut the college’s late-summer marketing push for students.
“I didn’t believe we could afford to do a quick press release and then have people try to make the story into something it was not,” he said. “I guess it was a matter of making sure we had all of our ducks in a row.”
Bell was “helpful in arranging those steps, so we didn’t make any miscalculation,” Quinn said.
Bell, for example, recommended that Quinn contact SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz prior to going to The News.
Bell also helped prepare Quinn and Murphy for the types of questions they might face and how they should answer them.
Quinn said he was happy with the work that the public relations firm did and that he was not surprised by the cost.
“These guys work like lawyers do. They bill you by the hour,” he said.
The two meetings each ran “a couple hours,” according to Boyd, who hadn’t seen a breakdown of the bill. But Boyd said he didn’t consider the $8,205 cost as unreasonable and that he was satisfied with the agency’s work.
Eric Mower + Associates’ rates are competitive with those of other public relations and marketing agencies, Bell said.
“We were pleased to be asked to work with President Quinn and Erie Community College. We were asked to provide a communications plan for a complex set of circumstances, and we did that,” Bell said. “Our services are hired like legal services, engineering services or any professional services, and we’re proud of the work that we do.”