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UC Davis spends $175K+ to manage online reputation after infamous pepper spray incident

If you messed up or did something totally embarrassing, and news of it spread all over the world, would you pay good money to make it hard to find on Google? According to the Sacramento Bee, that’s what UC Davis has been doing since an incident in 2011, in which protestors were pepper-sprayed by campus security. Fees to consulting groups topped $175K for advice on strategic communications, to improve the use of social media, and to add positive content to offset what one of the consultants called “venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor.”

UC Davis students had pitched tents and were staging a sit-down in protest of tuition hikes when they were pepper sprayed November 18, 2011. Videos of campus security officer Lt. John Pike spraying sitting students were viewed millions of times online. Blowback from the incident included the retirement of the head of campus police, calls for Chancellor Katehi’s resignation, and a $1 million settlement to the sprayed students. Lt. Pike, who was dismissed in 2012, later successfully sued the school and was awarded $38,500 in workers compensation for the “international scorn” to which he was subject after the incident.

See: Google paid $1 billion to be the default search engine on the iPhone

Documents released to the newspaper this week under the California Public Records Act detail the hiring of consulting groups to promote the university and protect its reputation. The overall strategic communications budget has grown 87% since 2009, coincident to hiring current university Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. The 2009 $2.93 million UC Davis budget line for strategic communications increased to $5.47 million in 2015.

Flooding the internet with positive comments, references, and news is a common method for cleaning up Google searches. If you are concerned about references or stories in your past, it’s a good idea to do something to generate more hits on your name, especially if you’re looking for a new job or moving to a new location. Earlier negative references end up deep enough in the search results that they don’t show on the first few pages.

That flooding strategy was employed among others by the consulting groups hired by UC Davis. In a proposal to the university, Nevins & Associates, a Maryland consulting firm, said it would manage a “surge of content with positive sentiment and off-topic subject matter.”

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