In the midst of unflattering coverage by local media, top officials at the nonprofit Cal Poly Corporation quickly agreed their decision to stop advertising with Cal Poly’s Mustang News newspaper wasn’t a good one.
Two print ads, a significant revenue source for the student newspaper, were pulled after the corporation, which runs campus dining among other operations, decided to re-evaluate its advertising in the wake of the paper’s reporting on a study that found a lack of healthy dining options on campus.
“I am mostly sorry that I did not say no to pulling the ads when it first came up and I questioned that it might appear retaliatory,” Lorlie Leetham, Cal Poly Corporation’s executive eirector, wrote in a March 7 email. “Last week was a lesson to me in several areas—trust my instincts when I think something is a bad idea.”
The internal emails, obtained by New Times via a public records request, detailed the corporation’s discussions in the wake of the paper’s Feb. 8 article on the report. Mustang News responded to the corporation’s decision to suspend print advertising with a scathing editorial, accusing the corporation of nixing the ads in retaliation against “negative” coverage.
In the emails, Cal Poly Corporations’ director of marketing and communication, Ellen Curtis, characterized the decision as a “miscalculation” on her part.
“I really failed on the Mustang News decision,” she wrote in a March 7 email. “I based my decision on my years of experience in the private sector. Cal Poly is a whole other animal.”
In later emails, Curtis explained that in the private sector, advertisers often pause their advertising in reaction to news about their brand.
“Obviously, this was not communicated to the students, and they panicked,” Curtis wrote.
In her emails, Curtis also expressed frustration at the situation, at one point stating she felt “held hostage” by a media outlet that demanded the corporation buy advertising while “consistently smearing” its brand.
In an April 11 email response to questions from New Times, Curtis said the statement was a personal one, and not made on behalf of the corporation.
“It reflected my specific relationship with a Mustang Media Group staff member,” she wrote.
The dust appears to have settled, and the corporation resumed its print advertisement with the paper.
Paul Bittick, a Cal Poly faculty member and the paper’s general manger, credited the paper’s student staff members for the way they managed the situation.
“They handled it very professionally, which is to their credit,” Bittick told New Times.