|Volume 52, Number 1, Winter, 2002-03|
BOB BEYERS LEFT LEGACY OF COURAGE AND CANDOR
by Joel N. Shurkin
Bob Beyers, former director of the Stanford University News Service, died in October of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.
If Beyers isn’t the patron saint of public information officers, he should be. There was nothing like him when he was at Stanford, and there is no chance of there being anyone like him again.
Beyers ran a unique operation. He believed passionately that the interests of the institution were best served by complete honesty, that university public relations operations should run under the same ethical standards as newspaper newsrooms, totally independent of the bureaucracy and administration.
Moreover, he consistently proved that he was right.
If Beyers isn’t the patron saint of public information officers, he should be.
Beyers was born in New York City and educated at Cornell. He was a newspaper reporter for a while, and eventually went to the news office at the University of Michigan and became a disciple of Lyle Nelson, who was essentially the inventor of university public affairs operations.
When Nelson moved to Stanford in 1961, Beyers moved with him. They set up a news operation unlike anything elsewhere-a totally independent office based on Nelson’s idealistic model.
At Stanford, Beyers hired only seasoned journalists for his staff. If you applied for a job, he gave you a test. Every question concerned ethics and how you would handle politically tricky stories. If you answered like a traditional public relations person, you failed. Not knowing how to be a public relations person, I passed the test and was brought in from the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I helped win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1980.
By then, Beyers’ reputation was international. He was known for his candor and courage. He believed that in a democracy you threw ideas out into the marketplace and let people decide what to do with them-even ideas you didn’t like.
And he believed that the best way to handle bad news was total candor.
Beyers was the inventor of the preemptive press release. If something bad were going to happen, Beyers put out a full news release before the press found out. His theory was that by getting it out first, you defused the story. A potential scandal that could clang around in the media for a week or month would go away in a few days if the university took the fun out of reporting it. It worked every time.
One result was that our office was trusted implicitly. When we put out a press release, reporters believed every word. We never lied. We never obfuscated. We never weaseled. And reporters knew it.
He believed in press releases to a fault. He wrote five or six himself every day! He wrote releases on the slightest pretext. Once, when a serial killer was executed in Florida, Beyers sent out a release pointing out the man once went to summer school at Stanford. He would show up at beach parties with a portable typewriter to keep churning out releases.
He was at his best when the stuff hit the fan. When anti-Vietnam war riots broke out on campus, Beyers, fearing that the integrity of university information would be impugned, hired a retired Associated Press reporter to cover the riots so everyone would know the information was independent.
One result of all this was a unique phenomenon: Not only did reporters trust us, but also so did the people working at Stanford. People actually read and believed the house organ, the Campus Report (CR).
Every press release was essentially written as a newspaper story for the CR. We did try to put the word “Stanford” somewhere in the first three paragraphs for the releases. I was there for 12 years and still don’t know how to write a conventional press release. The rules were simple: You reported and wrote the story. The only people who got to see what you wrote before publication were Beyers and the source, who could check it for accuracy only. No one else: no dean, administrator, department chairman, or bureaucrat got to see the story before it went out. The development office found out about it when the release showed up in their mail. (Beyers firmly believed that news operations working under development offices have an inherent conflict of interest and lack credibility).
I once wrote a story that got a vice president fired. I was struck by the number of times the executive changed the name of his operation and how he grabbed more functions for his office. Fascinated at watching an empire grow before my eyes, I did a long investigative piece published both as a CR story and a press release. This dismissal and the subsequent reorganization of the office might have saved Stanford as much as $9 million.
We never covered what Beyers called “administrivia”: No stories on grants, large or small, no stories on promotions, or routine reorganizations. When one of our students was named Miss America, we put out two paragraphs. Reluctantly.
When I told Beyers I wanted to set up a science writing program at the news service, he not only found the money, but also protected the funding from academics who were upset I was running a rogue journalism program on campus. Students came for my internship from as far away as England and Germany. Many of them are reading this newsletter. It is my life’s proudest achievement, and Beyers made it possible.
Beyers was adored by the faculty and despised by many in the bureaucracy and administration. The legend was that administrators would clear their desktops when Beyers came to visit. They knew that, like every good reporter, he could read upside down and feared he would find a story on their desk they didn’t want him to have. For years, however, he was protected by Nelson, a powerful voice in the administration, by Robert Rosenzweig, a top administrator, and by the then-president Richard Lyman, a mensch. When trustees complained to Rosenzweig about Beyers, Rosenzweig told them to get lost.
Rosenzweig’s explanation: When something bad happens, you report it rather than having to explain later not only what happened but why it was covered up. Beyers loved him.
When Nelson fell ill, Rosenzweig left, and Lyman retired, the clock started ticking. Beyers was, it must be said, an awful supervisor. The office was often chaos thanks to his inattention. He was kind, and left his people mostly alone, but he had no patience for running an office. The administration, partially because of complaints from his staff, partly as a way to undermine Beyers, brought in a consultant who recommended that someone else run the office. Brokenhearted, Beyers took early retirement. He had made a fatal philosophical mistake: He believed that if you love an institution, it would love you back.
As soon as he was gone, he was vindicated.
For several years, every time I did an interview with a Stanford researcher the only thing they wanted to discuss was Stanford’s high indirect costs and how it was costing them grants. It turned out that anything that moved on campus was being charged to the government, including an office with 23 lawyers. (That was before they found the yacht.) Stanford administrators even went around the country teaching other schools how to stick it to grantors. While I reported the story, Beyers protected me from intense pressure to get me to stop, including an indirect threat from the highest levels.
Eventually, a putative whistle-blower publicly claimed the university was cheating-it was-and all hell broke loose. Despite our best efforts and those of the indomitable Spryos Andreopoulis, Beyers’ noble counterpart at the medical center, the lawyers took control. All stories had to be cleared and we removed our bylines in protest. Eventually, we stopped writing them at all and let the lawyers do the releases as the university sank into disgrace.
The university went through the biggest scandal of its 100-year-history and most of it would not have happened if Beyers were in charge or if they had followed his principles. But he was gone by then. Soon, the university brought in someone whose job it was to emasculate the news service, and we all eventually left.
Last spring I got e-mail from Beyers about his illness, asking whether
I knew of any clinical trials for pancreatic cancer at Johns Hopkins.
I put him in touch with people who would know, but to no avail.
“I didn’t know you had heroes, Shurkin,” he snapped back.
Damn few, Beyers. Damn few.
Joel Shurkin is senior editor at HopkinsHealth, a database at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, in Baltimore, and a freelance writer.