U ticketing official's endorsement violates university policy

A University of Minnesota ticketing official's endorsement of a company that the university does business with violates university policy and has been ordered removed, U officials say.

Comments by Brent Holck, director of the U's ticket operations, appear on the Twitpic above, as well as in press releases and the company Web site of AudienceView, the firm that acts as the U's ticketing vendor. They appear either alone or next to the University of Minnesota logo or picture of mascot Goldy Gopher.

And a press release by the company, which has worked with the U since 2006, contains a statement by Jason LaFrenz, associate athletics director for external operations -- which is highlighted elsewhere on the site as well as in a downloadable PDF "case study" available here:

In addition to the Twitpic and statements, Holck also makes two videos in which he talks up his experiences with the company. One of them is more than nine minutes long.

(The first video has been removed since I began reporting this, so I've included a screen grab.)

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Holck did not answer calls requesting comment. LaFrenz said he was unsure of the details of the spots and the conference, and wouldn't answer more questions:

"I have to get my ducks in a row."

Officials from AudienceView did not respond to questions.

University spokesman Dan Wolter told me in an e-mail that at least one of the items:

"... is indeed in violation of University policy and our contract with AudienceView. We are in contact with them to ask that it be removed and that they are aware of their contract terms with the University."

In a second e-mail, he wrote:

"We take all of our policies and procedures seriously. We've communicated with AudienceView that their use of the University mark is inappropriate and asked that it be removed. We've also had a lengthy discussion about this policy with the staff of the ticketing office to ensure they are aware of it and how it impacts their work. (It's also important to note that the policy you are asking about was most recently revised in November of last year, so some if it is relatively new.)"

In a follow-up e-mail he noted:

I believe (LaFrenz's statements and Holck's videos) would be deemed as policy violations under the current policy. However, because the policy was changed at the end of last year and some of these items clearly occurred before that change, it's unclear.

Wolter said the endorsements apparently occurred in the fall of 2010 and were not laid out in any contract. Neither Holck, LaFrenz nor the university received compensation for the promotion, he said.

Here's what the U has to say about endorsements:

Prohibited Uses of University Trademarks

  • No Endorsement

Neither the name of the University nor any University Trademark, including the University Colors, may be used in any way that gives a false impression, is misleading, or could cause confusion regarding the University’s relationship with any person or entity. Specifically, neither the name of the University nor any University Trademark may be used to characterize the University as a user of a product or service, or as having conducted research relating to a commercial product or program, or in any other way to convey or imply the endorsement of a commercial product or service.

Why is such a policy important?

Lorman Lundsten, chairman of the marketing department at the Opus College of Business at the University of  St. Thomas, told me:

"The U is a Big Ten land-grant university. That’s a big image in the academic world. If an employee links the university name to something less than that, it's damaging the very thing the university has taken years and lots of money to develop – its image."

As an example, he said:

"Lets’ say there's some education software that the university uses. The software company widely puts the U's name on its software in a way that links it up. If the software company takes a dive, so does the university. Look at Tiger Woods. His fortunes took a real hit, and then none of his sponsors wanted anything to do with him."

Universities, like companies, need to be on guard, as David Hopkins, program director of Carlson Brand Enterprise at the Carlson School of Management, suggests:

"Typically companies will try to do it because of a "transfer of equity' – positive associations that people will make between the two brands. If you don’t control that, it could damage your brand ... and create (negative) perceptions."

But the university says Holck is allowed to attend client conferences hosted by AudienceView so he can exchange ideas and learn from other clients of the company.

Here he's shown talking at what the AudienceView Twitpic page called "AVConnect 2011":

Wolter said it took place in San Francisco on a Friday in January, and the university paid Holck's expenses because the conference was "part of his job responsibilities" as ticketing manager:

"This was a conference that allowed users to maximize their understanding and application of the software by discussing usage with other AudienceView users and sharing best practices and practical experience. ... This is part of maximizing the system that the University uses and seeing how others are using it."