Amid budget debates, UA officials say $495,000 social media campaign was effective

Board Chair John Davies and University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen speak at a meeting on Sept. 13, 2019.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Amid threats of drastic cuts, the University of Alaska spent $495,000 on a public relations campaign to advocate for its importance to the state.

The UA Strong campaign was launched on Feb. 22, less than two weeks after the governor proposed a $134 million cut to the university’s budget. The campaign was put out in a competitive bidding process to outside public relations agencies and was to cost no more than $500,000.

Robbie Graham, a spokesperson for the university’s statewide services, confirmed that Anchorage-based agency Brilliant Media Strategies won the bid.

The campaign ran from March 6 until the end of the legislative session. Graham says a broad coalition of stakeholders worked on the campaign and convened weekly.

In June, the Legislature approved an operating budget that would have cut $5 million from the university’s budget. UAA chancellor Dr. Cathy Sandeen wrote in an email that “advocacy played a critical role in making legislators aware of the value of the university to the state.”

Dr. Jim Johnsen, the UA President, said after years of negative publicity, UA Strong had accurately and positively shown the importance of the university to the State of Alaska.

He also described that legislators spoke about their concern about cuts to the university, showing the effectiveness of the campaign.

“UA Strong is a page for all Alaskans to follow the state budget process, and learn about the impacts of proposed cuts on the University of Alaska,” reads a description of the campaign on its Facebook page.

UA Strong saw simultaneous events held across Alaska to rally the community and videos posted on social media, supporting the university.

The campaign also distributed:

  • 2,500 UA Strong buttons

  • 2,000 UA support window clings

  • 2,000 UA Strong stickers

  • 2,000 coffee sleeves to Juneau coffee shops during session

  • 225 small UA Strong yard signs and 20 larger billboard signs

“I got opportunities academically and professionally that I couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise,” said Andres Antuna, a UAA student, in a video posted on YouTube in May.

Another video that was posted in April has Dave Pflieger, the CEO of Ravn Air, talking about the importance of partnerships between the aviation industry and UA. “We want to create more jobs up here in Alaska and we want more Alaskans in those jobs,” he said.

Each of the videos finish with a subheading that they were “paid for with private funds.” Johnsen explains that the campaign was bankrolled from a small discretionary fund available to the UA president that’s managed by the University of Alaska Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation.

The foundation also manages the university’s endowment which sits at around $337.5 million, according to the latest data published online. The discretionary fund used for the campaign is filled by private donors who don’t designate how they want their donations spent.

“The UA Strong campaign was conceived around supporting UA in general, including its component entities,” read an email from Dr. Daniel White, the chancellor of UAF, sent on Monday. “It brought needed attention to UA's budget challenges and to efforts to secure funding.”

In July, the governor vetoed an additional $130 million from the UA budget. After the veto was announced the university paid for advertisements on six television stations in Anchorage and Fairbanks and a radio ad that ran on 26 stations.

The governor signed an agreement with Board of Regents Chair John Davies in August that would see $70 million cut from the university’s budget over three years, instead of $135 million in one.

Johnsen said he would “absolutely” run the same sort of campaign again and that it is vital to advocate for a university, particularly in a state with a low-college attendance rate. “All the states that are thriving right now have education attainment,” he said.

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