The public relations team on the La Jolla campus of the University of California San Diego is widely regarded in the world of academic flackery as one of the best in the taxpayer-financed business. Every day, UCSD’s University Communications and Public Affairs department spins out a daunting array of glowing notices about the good work the university is doing in science, the arts, and beyond.
As a page on the office’s website notes, the department “manages numerous electronic/web vehicles as well, including the UC San Diego News Center website, Chancellor’s website, the campus e-newsletter This Week@ UCSD, and special project websites.” In addition, PR staffers “initiate and manage thousands of media relations efforts locally, nationally, and internationally.” Any bad news about the school is customarily left for the befuddled citizenry to root out on its own.
Rare misfires are quickly snuffed out by a simple but effective public relations ploy: silence. Two weeks ago a widely touted story about Dmitri Krioukov — a UCSD computer researcher who supposedly beat a $400 speeding ticket by dazzling a lowly traffic court commissioner with his complicated scientific version of the incident — was brought down to Earth by U-T San Diego. The paper quoted the court commissioner in the case as saying that much of the physicist’s mumbo-jumbo “went right over my head.”
Commissioner Karen Riley explained, “The ruling was not based on his physics explanation. It was based on the officer’s view.… The officer wasn’t close enough to the intersection to have a good view.” The U-T wanted to get Krioukov’s side, but Jan Zverina, “media relations manager” for the university’s supercomputer center, told the paper that the physicist wasn’t available for comment.
Despite the U-T’s yeomanly pursuit of the truth, the university’s version of Krioukov’s story, sans commissioner comments, remained prominently posted last week on the computer center’s website, enshrining yet another UCSD urban legend for posterity.
Perhaps not surprisingly, those charged with burnishing the school’s image are well compensated by taxpayers. Zverina, whose actual title is senior public information representative, was paid $79,726 in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Sacramento Bee’s online database of state salaries. Other PR workers make much more.
At the top of the heap sits Clare M. Kristofco, the university’s associate chancellor and chief of staff, with ultimate responsibility for seeing that the PR push goes right. She made $217,515, according to the Bee’s database. Then came Jeff Gattas, executive director of marketing, media relations, and public affairs and a veteran of San Diego’s city hall, who did stints with then–city councilwoman Toni Atkins and Mayor Jerry Sanders before shifting to UCSD. Gattas received $142,725. (Gattas did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.)
Warren Froelich, the supercomputer center’s head of communications, was paid $111,117. Kim McDonald, who does PR work for the biological and physical sciences departments, got $105,771. Judy Piercey, senior director of marketing and media relations for the university, received $104,133. Cindy Clark, communications director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was paid $103,396.
Only a bit further down the pay scale was Doug Ramsey, “media relations” specialist with UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, at $93,637. Henry DeVries, who works for the university’s extension program, got $95,204. Brook Williamson, a PR aide in the chancellor’s office, was paid $79,834. Research affairs public affairs man Paul Mueller got $79,366. And Inga Kiderra, who does public relations for the social sciences and art departments, which rank far below science-related disciplines as university favorites, still managed to pull down $75,713.