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UC Davis spent $175K to hide pepper spray cop on Google, says report

Documents reportedly show that the California university hired teams to improve its Google results after a campus police officer pepper-sprayed students and became an Internet meme.

Campus Police Lt. John Pike asks a pair of protestors to take down their tent on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011, the same day he pepper-sprayed students seated in the quad.
Randall Benton/ZUMA/Corbis

It was one of the viral images of 2011: a group of college students sitting passively on the ground while a UC Davis police officer slowly and deliberately hit them point-blank in the face with pepper spray.

The event drew widespread criticism of the school, dragging it into the Occupy Wall Street debate that was making waves around the country.

In the past five years, it appears the University of California, Davis, has used a different weapon to cover up that embarrassing incident from search results on Google.

University documents show that the school paid public relations firms at least $175,000 to hide bad publicity on Google when people searched on the university name and the name of its chancellor, Linda Katehi, according to The Sacramento Bee, which obtained the papers.

In a statement, Dana Topousis, interim strategic communications lead at UC Davis, defended the university's use of communications funds.

"Increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect," Topousis said. She added that it's important that good news from the school "is not lost during a campus crisis, including the crisis that ensued following the extremely regrettable incident when police pepper-sprayed student protesters in 2011."

Such PR services, often called reputation management, generally work by flooding the Internet with positive or unrelated blog posts and other Web pages. As a result, the controversial or negative stories get pushed down to the second or third page of Google results. If a previously troubled company does good things, old, negative results will naturally fall to the bottom, said Brian Patterson, a partner at Go Fish Digital, a company that offers reputation management. Businesses like his "help guide a company through that process," he said. Go Fish Digital was not one of the firms hired by UC Davis.

But spending money on the service with two different companies led to a new headache for the school. UC Davis is a public university, and that means it's subject to California's Public Records Act transparency laws. The Sacramento Bee said it obtained the documents using this method.

"That picture is iconic," Patterson said. Appearing to try to bury it "looks terrible, and it's going to be hard for them to turn it around."

Another university in California's public education system, UC Berkeley, also saw controversy during the Occupy Wall Street protests that took place on its own campus. A row of police officers beat back a line of protestors with their batons, striking the protestors repeatedly in the torsos in unison. The video of that incident also went viral and caused a public outcry. So did it use reputation management in the aftermath?

"I've been here 12 years," said Dan Mogulof, executive director of communications and public affairs at UC Berkeley. "I'm not aware that we have ever used similar services."

Of the two firms that reportedly worked with UC Davis to improve its Google results, Nevins & Associates, declined to comment, and ID Media Partners did not respond to a request for comment.

Updated at 3:10 p.m. PT to add comment from UC Davis and UC Berkeley.