At this time last week, I was meeting with Secret Service agents, members of the Obama for America campaign staff and other campus staff, all of us sweating over the details of a potential visit by the presidential candidate to our community.
We were literally sweating over the details at times as we stood inside the non-air-conditioned gymnasium of our campus’s student recreation center — the only site in the community that would house the 1,000 to 1,200 people the Obama campaign wanted to squeeze in. (Talk about bad timing: we had just finished painting the gym floor in the adjoining multi-purpose building, but that venue needed some time to cure and ventilate and would not be available for this event.)
A more seasoned veteran of higher ed marketing and PR (yes, you can still find a few codgers who have been at this game longer than I) told our chancellor that, if any presidential campaign approached him about arranging for a visit on campus, he would not get within 50 miles of such an event. But I was excited to be involved in the process. It’s the first time a presumptive nominee for either party has been to the town of Rolla since — well, since I don’t know when. (Bill Bradley spoke on campus once in the late ’90s, when he was being touted as a possible candidate. So did Colin Powell, similarly touted in the mid-90s. But neither man made it to this phase of the campaign. Possibly the last time a nominee visited Rolla was when Harry Truman did so on one of his whistle stop campaign stops.) This was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was thrilled to be in the mix of planning and executing the event.
The town hall was held on Wednesday, July 30, with temporary AC units attempting to pump cool air into the facility. Here’s a clip of the event.
From a tactical standpoint, the event went off well. The campaign team was organized and competent and knew how to plan and execute the town hall. But for my purposes, I’m more interested in assessing the value of this event to our university from a PR, visibility and name recognition standpoint.
What was the end result of the Obama campaign stop? Was it worth the work?
Keep in mind that our university only recently completed a significant name change, so we are always interested in any opportunity to get our new name out to the public and to tout our emphasis in engineering, science and technology. During his town hall on our campus last week, Obama mentioned some of the initiatives our university is undertaking, such as alternative energy, and he had ample opportunity to refer to Missouri S&T. But it never happened. I was disappointed that he didn’t make the connection, but I can understand why. He didn’t come to Rolla to tout the work already under way at a technologically-focused university. He came to talk about his vision for the future. So why should he saddle himself with a reference to work already in development?
As far as media coverage goes, we got some nice mentions in the media around the state and nationally. Our name also showed up on CNN as that network aired the town hall live, and we were name-checked on the Obama campaign blog. We had some nice visibility.
The news release announcing the event also garnered the lion’s share of views from our website during the week (see below).
We did receive some criticism for holding the event. A lot of it was from misinformed alumni and others who thought we’d invited Obama to speak when it was the campaign staff who contacted us, not the other way around. But the positive comments and visibility far outweighed the negatives.
All told, I would rate the experience a positive one for our university.
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3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Obama visit”
Excellent opportunity to get a bit of exposure for S&T. Good stuff again, Andrew.
Congratulations on the successful event! I am a little surprised, however, that any candidate would not take the chance to point out their campaign’s awareness of existing alternative energy research and use that to ground their visions and plans for the future.
Aside from name exposure, do you think that this will have an effect on the university’s goals of undergraduate enrollment and research spending increases?
Nathan – Good question about whether the Obama stop will have any impact on enrollment or research funding. I’m not sure we’ll have any idea on how many new students will come to S&T just because a candidate visited, nor whether that will cause research agencies to look more favorably on our funding proposals. My hunch is that some students (or their parents, if they’re of the appropriate political stripe) may be impressed that Obama visited campus, and may be swayed slightly to give S&T a second look. As for research agencies, I suspect most of the bureaucrats who decide where funding goes are more persuaded by congressional delegations or relationships with researchers than with a campaign stop. But I have no way of really knowing or measuring any of that.