Crafting a message: The powerhouse PR and lobbying firm behind Hampshire’s media strategy

  • The flag flies on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst Friday, December 2, 2016.

Staff Writer
Published: 3/10/2019 6:20:47 PM

AMHERST — When Hampshire College announced on Jan. 15 that it was struggling financially and seeking a partner institution, its leaders acknowledged that all eyes would be on the school as it seeks a solution to a problem plaguing many small colleges across the country.

It was an accurate prediction. Since that announcement, local, state and national publications have covered Hampshire’s transition: The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation and The Chronicle of Higher Education, to name some.

The media scrutiny has been handled by a communications and public relations operation that is at the heart of much of the criticism — and some praise — the college has received in recent weeks. The college’s accreditor, for example, praised Hampshire’s “openness” last month, whereas students continue to occupy the president’s office in a sit-in that has lasted more than a month, decrying what they see as an opaque process.

“I think a lot of the uproar and frustration is coming from the fact that there was not that transparency,” one student told the Gazette ahead of the college’s decision on Feb. 1 to admit a skeleton class this fall.

The public got a brief glimpse into the college’s PR strategy when the Gazette obtained and published emails between Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts Amherst last month.

The exchanges showed Hampshire and UMass crafting a public relations plan in advance of the college’s Jan. 15 announcement, including responses to inquiries from Boston Magazine about the possibility of Hampshire closing. In the emails, officials at Hampshire and UMass honed talking points for press inquiries.

Those emails also revealed that Hampshire had retained the services of the powerhouse Washington, D.C. public relations and lobbying firm Subject Matter.

“John Buckley is the CEO of Subject Matters, our stellar WDC public relations firm,” Hampshire President Miriam “Mim” Nelson wrote in a Jan. 10 email, introducing Buckley to UMass officials shortly before Hampshire’s announcement about its search for a partner. “John Buckley is currently working on that public statement.”

Politicial pedigree

Buckley has long worked in corporate PR. He ran communications and advertising at the government-backed mortgage company Fannie Mae from 1991 to 2001 and was executive vice president of communications at AOL from 2002 to 2007. He also served in senior communication roles in three Republican presidential campaigns — Reagan-Bush in 1984, Jack Kemp’s failed 1988 bid, and Dole-Kemp in 1996 — though he told the Gazette he is no longer a Republican.

“I was, in my misspent youth,” he said. “But not for 20 years.”

Buckley hails from the famous Buckley political family; he is the son of John W. Buckley, who ran the family gas and oil companies, and the nephew of the conservative author and founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley. He is also a Hampshire alum who studied fiction writing and whose final-year project in college became his first published novel, “Family Politics.” Buckley became a rock critic for several years after graduating Hampshire in 1979, writing for publications such as Rolling Stone and the National Review. And according to Hampshire College spokesman John Courtmanche, he has advised every college president since Gregory S. Prince Jr.

“I actually run the firm, and so I’m not as a rule giving up significant amounts of my time for specific clients, but for Hampshire I am,” Buckley said in a telephone interview. “I love the institution, and I’m determined to do everything we can to keep it going and providing the unique service to American higher education that it has provided for 49 years.”

Buckley said he was hired in September to help Hampshire with communications for its Visioning Project. That initially meant planning “the full arc of time” between fall 2018 and the college’s 50th anniversary in June 2020. Buckley said planning for such anniversaries is something Subject Matter often does; the firm is currently helping PBS with its own 50th anniversary initiatives.

Regarding the firm’s work with Hampshire, Buckley said in a follow-up email: “Obviously, things became much more intense in January.”

Discount rates

Some in the Hampshire community have raised questions about the college’s ties to Buckley and his firm. Subject Matter works for plenty of corporate titans. Lobbying records show clients that include some of the world’s largest corporations — Facebook, Ford, General Electric, Goldman Sachs and Visa, for example — but also groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Pew Charitable Trusts.

“I went to Hampshire, I get it,” Buckley said when asked about the contrast.

Buckley said his firm has done a lot of work with colleges and universities, including Purdue University and Johns Hopkins University, and knows the issues those institutions face.

“This is the kind of work that we’re very familiar with, in part because we are in Washington and operate within a broader political environment,” Buckley said. “We’re highly aware of the range of issues having to do with transparency and the democratization of information that a variety of constituencies are always hungry for.”

Courtmanche said that Subject Matter is charging “heavily discounted rates” for its work, though Courtmanche and Buckley declined to say how much exactly. Buckley described his work for the college as helping with communications strategy and writing assignments, as well as engaging in “near daily contact” with college officials and staff to offer advice.

“Hampshire has a devoted, competent but small communications team assisting Mim and the Board, and we’ve tried augmenting their work,” Buckley wrote in an email.

Though some have praised the college’s openness with its struggles and process, its communications strategy has attracted plenty of critics who have said the school is lacking in transparency. When asked about that criticism, Buckley pushed back.

“I’ve seen Mim and the Board aggressively trying to inform and explain,” he wrote. “They’ve been met with a presumption that they are operating in bad faith, which is incorrect, and that their efforts lack transparency, which is belied by a voluminous record of communication.”

Responding to criticism

Hampshire’s communications team, which is led by Chief Creative Officer David Gibson, recently decided to take on other criticism by publicly responding to a story in Fortune Magazine by Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who runs the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit and previously served on the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ National Commission on College and University Board Governance.

In that article, Sonnenfeld said that Hampshire “hampered good governance,” writing that Nelson “was recently dealt a bad hand, but she, with the board’s support, has just knocked the whole deck of cards off the table in panic.”

In an unusual move supported by Buckley, Hampshire wrote a lengthy open letter in response to Sonnenfeld, challenging some of the points he raised in his article and expressing surprise that he had not reached out to anyone at the college prior to publication.

When asked why the college chose to respond to that particular article, Courtmanche did not mince words.

“We were outraged by the notion that a Yale professor would snipe at Hampshire at its moment of pain, and even use his commentary to promote his consulting conference, without taking the time to call us to engage or learn what actually happened,” Courtmanche wrote in an email response to the Gazette. “We felt it important to rebut him, and copied his editor, similar to a letter to the editor.”

In an email, Sonnenfeld disputed Courtmanche’s characterization of his leadership summit, saying that it has no “consulting” components or registration fees, and that it does not need promotion.

In general, Courtmanche said the college’s communications team has “not felt that the right approach is to try knocking down every Facebook comment or post.”

However, in a smaller decision Buckley says he had no part in, the college asked the administrator of an alumni Facebook page to take down a copy of a satirical email that someone anonymously sent around campus on Thursday.

The hoax email, which a prankster signed as “Mi(ria)m Nelson,” lampooned the corporate language of the president’s communications to campus. The message announces the public “euthanization” of the R.W. Kern Center — a building that recently earned the top environmental designation of “living building.”

College administrators were not amused. In an email confirming that Hampshire had indeed asked alumni to remove a copy of the message from social media, Courtmanche described the letter as containing “threatening language planning for the evacuation and destruction of a college building before spring break.”

“College leaders could not dismiss the threat, and instead acted to ensure campus  safety,” Courtmanche wrote. “College leaders and Campus Security officers not ified Amherst Police Department.”

Update: This article has been updated to include a response from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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