When you Google "RIT," you're likely to find positive stories on its research projects, athletics and inclusive initiatives. Schools with positive reviews get higher quality student applicants and better funding.

Since becoming a research university, RIT's reputation and publicity have grown exponentially. Recently, U.S. News and World Report ranked RIT 97th among top schools in the country, a gain of 10 spots from last year.

As chief communications officer at RIT, Bob Finnerty runs the public relations department and oversees all communication from RIT including media outlets and social media sites. One of his main responsibilities is shaping how the outside world perceives RIT. 

That being said, Finnerty sees himself in more of an advocacy role, and strongly believes in conducting himself in the truthful manner outlined by the Public Relations Society of America

“A lot of us staff [in the PR department] went up with journalism background and keep ethics to our hearts,” Finnerty said.

In a self-graded study, the PR department monitored how much media attention RIT gets worldwide. They found that the university is cited approximately 25,000 times a year. In their final grading, the PR department found that 65 percent of citations were positive, 34.5 percent were neutral and 0.05 percent were negative press. 

What's Happened?

In previous years, RIT has been off the hook for bad publicity. This semester, however, multiple fumbles with RIT’s student relations have caused a PR nightmare. Here’s a quick summary:

ROO: During a freshman orientation presentation on consent, the acronym "ROO" — tastefully named after the baby kangaroo from Winnie the Pooh — that stood for "Rub One Out," suggested that self-gratification could prevent assault.  The slide became an internet sensation, going viral and even making it to the Associated Press. A Letter to the Editor on the incident was published at Reporter as well as an article covering student reactions.

"13 Reasons Why": A widely criticized series on Netflix, “13 Reasons Why,” has been charged by the National Association for School Psychologists for "romanticizing suicide." The premiere episode was going to be screened for Suicide Prevention Week, but after students made a Pawprints petition against the showing. Organizers decided to just show the trailer. A statement clarifying the intent of the event was released on Pawprints and provided resources for students struggling with suicide.

Abbey Nurse, a second year Film and Animation student and author of the Pawprints petition, had some thoughts on how the school handled the situation. 

“I made it in class (to the dismay of my professor), shared it with everyone in the class, posted it on Facebook, in every group chat I was in and told them to sign it,” Nurse said.

Unfortunately, 15 minutes after posting the petition the Pawprints site temporarily crashed, but it didn’t keep her from getting the word out. Nurse, who suffers from clinical depression herself, understands the dangers of bad messaging for students struggling with suicide.

“Suicide sells,” Nurse said. “[13 Reasons Why] turns suicide into a revenge game.”

Trans Healthcare: Reporter published a story over the summer about the abrupt firing of Dr. Annamaria Kontor, the only staff physician trained to fill prescriptions for transgender students seeking hormone therapy. The legal battle over this issue is still ongoing, and has been recently covered by The Democrat & Chronicle as well.

Does RIT have a Communication Problem?

While there’s no changing what’s been done, RIT’s response to these scandals speaks volumes on their ability to listen and adapt to student concerns.

“I feel RIT does not have a transparency problem,” Finnerty said. “If there’s a statement that has to be had, we would write it, then run it by the appropriate team such as the VP or legal."

Second year Game Design major John Blau would argue otherwise. As an RA and therefore a student employee, he has a unique perspective on the inner workings of RIT's administrative departments.

“In terms of telling the general population what’s going on, we have a bit of a transparency problem, but internally we handle it well,” Blau said.

Blau explained that the announcement of Suicide Prevention Week was co-sponsored by the Center for Residence Life. He was sent out to promote the "13 Reasons Why" event to his floor. Blau, along with other staff, explained the issues of the series with management and worked together internally to change the event. Externally, however, the diligent efforts of the staff goes unnoticed.

“The transparency and honesty of just saying, ‘Hey, we messed up,’ didn’t come across well,” Blau said.

The consequences of controlling the narrative to protect RIT’s reputation publicly can be damaging to current relations with students. Blau says that after the ROO incident, it became difficult to send his floor members to the Center for Women and Gender because they no longer saw it as a place for counseling or support.

“When these things happen it makes it difficult to tell people to get help. I need to have confidence in the places I send them,” Blau said. “It de-legitimizes the work I’m trying to do and the work they do.”

Good PR can lessen mass media fallout, but student fallout may not be so easily repaired. Transparency can’t fall completely on the PR department though. Student advocacy groups such as Student Government and Gray Matters are all part of a movement to mitigate transparency problems. It is also the responsibility of students to speak up and push for corrective measures on campus. In fact, Finnerty wants the PR office to be a place where students feel comfortable voicing complaints.

“Send emails to appropriate departments and divisions, come in face-to-face and make an appointment,” Finnerty said. “It’s important to have face-to-face meetings from the folks you feel you’re not being heard from.”

At the end of the day, the power to control the narrative also lies with the students.