What NC State University did wrong during their Hofmann Forest debacle

Regardless what you think about the rationale behind the now infamous sale of NC State University’s 79,000 acre Hofmann Forest or about the implications for the  university’s forestry school, the university’s finances, or the environment and ecosystem of Eastern North Carolina, the sale, from start to finish, was handled poorly. This blog post will not go into detail on the saga of the proposed sale. For more on the tug-of-war between the university and activists, read here. This post rather will talk about the mistakes NC State made from a PR standpoint. And mistakes were made. The whole  ordeal should be a learning experience for any school or institution dealing with similar issues. Here are three examples of the university’s PR missteps:

  • NC State was consistently paternalistic in its communication with the public on the issue. Here’s a quote from NC State’s Brad Bohlander: “The buyer has made a verbal commitment publicly that he will continue to use the land in those ways” (referring to a presumed commitment to continue forestry and research rather than developing the forest). While a verbal or handshake agreement often works in the business world, the public doesn’t trust it, especially when they weren’t party to the agreement. Brad may be explaining this in order to comfort the public that their concerns are being addressed, but from the public’s standpoint, this smacks of a good ol’ boy backroom deal. This controversy should have been easy to see coming, and the university should have addressed concerns at the beginning by securing an iron-clad agreement.
  • The school was tone deaf about the public’s feelings toward the land. “Almost all teaching has moved off the forest. Ninety-eight percent of sponsored research is no longer done in the forest. It’s really turned into an income generator. It’s a tree farm.” This statement underestimates how much people support land conservation, which typically has BROAD bipartisan backing. A tree farm is better in the public’s eye than another golf course, and despite the fact that the vast majority will never actually visit the forest, the public reveres the idea of seeing 79,000 acres remain green. The tandem argument that the forest is an income generator but that the money from the sale could be better served through other investments doesn’t hold water with the public either. They saw the sale as throwing away a heritage forest to gamble the proceeds in the stock market. Most people don’t own stock. Those that do seldom actively trade, and despite recent market gains, the 2008-09 financial crisis still feels too real for people to fully trust the market. Again, these fears could have been allayed had the university foresaw the uproar over the lack of a signed agreement for conservation of the forest.
  • The university underestimated the PR benefit of being a large land conservator. As a land-grant university, the Hofmann Forest harkens back to the university’s roots. Sure it makes less money than they’d like, but the storytelling value of the forest is intangible. People love a good story, especially about nature. Boosting your endowment by selling a 79,000 acre forest that’s been in university hands for generations is not a good story. Put simply, nobody cares about your endowment when trees are at stake. Couple this with the fact that the opposition had a much more compelling story to tell, and you can understand why the university got it handed to them by the media.

The basic idea here is that the university never took seriously the uprising against the sale (despite their protests to the contrary), and they never adequately addressed the leaked prospectus by the buyer showing that they indeed had (at least at one point) plans to convert land to corn production, golf courses or housing. The university seemed more worried about offloading the forest quickly to the highest bidder than addressing conservation concerns. This led to public blowback which led to an altered deal that seemingly guaranteed that at least a good chunk of the forest would go undeveloped. But at the end of the day even this deal fell through. The story told to the public is that it was an issue of the buyer not being able to secure funds, and I would bet that the strong opposition to the sale had a great deal to do with this.

There are several lessons to be learned here. The first is that when making a potentially controversial decision, it pays to think ahead to what the public’s reaction might be. NC State seemed anxious to get the sale finished and failed to anticipate backlash from environmentalists and the subsequent grassroots movement. The second is that the public expects trusted institutions to deal squarely with them. Throughout this process, the general public was never convinced that the university was dealing squarely. Announcing a buyer before any public comment or open RFP period and talking about verbal conservation agreements at the same time a leaked prospectus contradicting those agreements was circulating does not sound like straight talk to most people, and the grassroots movement against the sale is evidence of this.

Next: What the Save Hofmann Forest movement did RIGHT

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