The rules defining whether a U. of I. employee can or can't endorse an outside vendor's product or service just became clearer, as a result of a revised policy statement in the Campus Administrative Manual.
The policy restricts employees from supplying a testimonial for an outside vendor in the university's name, except in certain cases when there is a benefit to the university and prior permission is obtained from the associate chancellor for public affairs.
"We get these requests all of the time," said Joel Steinfeldt, the brand manager for campus Public Affairs. "As a general rule, we don't want people appearing in advertising and giving the impression they are representing the university."
The policy statement, developed by the Office of Business and Financial Services and the campus legal department, was put in place to protect the university's reputation and shield it from legal exposure, as well as to ensure all messages align with established communication strategies.
"When someone asks whether something is allowable, what I ask is, 'What benefit is there to the university?'" Steinfeldt said. "The whole idea behind this is to protect the university's reputation, and to do that, we have to remain impartial."
The policy prohibits endorsers from being compensated and, in addition to requiring demonstrable benefit to the university, limits what an employee with prior approval can say on behalf of a vendor.
The prior-approval process involves an examination of the text, images and context of the project to ensure that it contains no qualitative endorsements or inaccurate or misleading references to the university.
The endorsement can include statements of fact but not value statements. An employee can confirm the university's use of the product or service but, even when approved to participate, an employee can't say "it's really swell and I use it every day."
Steinfeldt said an example of an acceptable endorsement scenario would be providing students a link to the sustainable farm where some of the cafeteria's food is supplied. Doing so provides important information but doesn't make a value
"There's a proven benefit for the university to show its students that it is providing food through sustainable farming," he said. "We can confirm and make factual statements, but we can't get into superlatives or show favoritism."
Brian Mertz, the senior client relationship consultant for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, said the wording in the prior policy seemed too restrictive to risk offering public endorsements - whether those endorsements benefited the university or not.
At least that was the interpretation when his department declined an offer last year from Microsoft to participate in an advertising campaign touting its Unified Communications system, which the Urbana campus started using two years ago.
"They wanted us to give a testimonial about our UC rollout because we're one of the biggest environments for UC that Microsoft supports," he said.
"We really wanted to say 'yes' to the endorsement, but felt it wasn't allowed under university policy," said Tony Rimovsky, CITES associate director for enterprise infrastructure. "Then we heard about the changes to the policy this summer and realized we could at least have made some statement of fact about the product and how we were using it, as long as we didn't endorse the product."
"Now that we know we could have safely offered a lot of facts, we might have at least given them our usage statistics, which are quite impressive," Mertz said.
The revised endorsement policy, as well as the process to get prior approval for an endorsement, is available online.