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The stage at a previous TEDxUKY event. (Credit: University of Kentucky, via Flickr.)

“It all sounds a little strange to me!”

That was a member of the University of Kentucky’s public relations and marketing staff, in a Dec. 2 email message to her colleagues — explaining why a TEDx talk on campus, by a woman named Kristie Colón, had suddenly blown up into a national story, with reporters from across the country demanding answers about an unreleased video of the talk.

INC Cover dan priceThe subject line on the email thread: “Ted talk Drama.”

Indeed, the University of Kentucky had just become an unwitting participant in one of the more unusual and dramatic technology stories of the past year — involving Dan Price, the Gravity Payments CEO who made global news for instituting a $70,000 minimum salary at the Seattle-based company. The TEDx talk by Price’s former wife included a passage recounting alleged incidents of abuse during their marriage nearly a decade ago, which Price has categorically denied.

In the following days, the university would decide not to release the video, going so far as to delete its own copy, seeking to wash its hands of the situation. 

But in a surprise twist, it now turns out that Price’s company received access to one of the few remaining copies of the video — which may now be the only remaining copy — when a university staffer sent a Dropbox link to a Gravity Payments’ head of communications, suggesting that he “preserve” the video before it was deleted.

That is one of the new details from internal University of Kentucky emails, obtained by GeekWire through a public records request to the university. The messages provide a window into the back-and-forth communications between an employee of Price’s Seattle startup and University of Kentucky staffers in the days leading up to the university’s decision.

An international story

The larger story started last April, when the Gravity Payments CEO announced that he would institute the $70,000 minimum salary and also reduce his own salary — previously $1.1 million — to the same amount, to help fund the pay raises for his employees.

Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com
Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

With that bold statement about wage equality, Price received a crush of publicity — appearing on programs including the Today Show and the Daily Show, in addition to a pair of high-profile stories in The New York Times, the cover of Inc. magazine, and coverage in many other publications. Price has acknowledged that part of his calculus was to leverage the publicity to boost Gravity’s business, to help cover the cost of the salary increases.

But a report by Bloomberg Businessweek on Dec. 1 raised new questions about Price’s motivations — revealing that a previously reported suit by Price’s brother and business partner, questioning Price’s salary, had actually been served on Price before, not after, the Gravity CEO announced the sweeping salary changes.

That story, by Karen Weise, a Seattle-based Bloomberg Businessweek reporter, also revealed the existence of the TEDxUKY talk given by Colón on Oct. 28. According to the story, Colón read on stage from what she described as a 2006 journal entry, referring to alleged incidents of physical abuse by her then-husband. Her talk was about the power of writing to overcome trauma.

Price wasn’t named in the talk, but Colón has been married only once.

The story noted that the video was to be released the week of Dec. 7.

That kicked off a series of emails between a Gravity Payments representative and University of Kentucky staffers, according to the internal emails. It started with a Dec. 2 message in which Gravity’s head of communications, Ryan Pirkle, told a university staffer that the reported contents of the speech were “categorically untrue, and potentially defamatory,” and asked to review the video prior to its scheduled public release.

“Please send a streaming link or download link to this video immediately,” he wrote.

gravity2
Email addresses and phone numbers redacted by GeekWire.

The university withheld certain communications from its response to GeekWire’s public records request, citing exemptions under Kentucky law. Some of the emails reference follow-up phone calls, the details of which weren’t provided.

But the records that were provided show that Tori Amason, the TEDxUKY organizer and University of Kentucky program director for leadership education, responded to Pirkle a week later, on Dec. 9, providing a Dropbox link to download the video.

Pirkle answered, “Thanks for sending this, Tori. We’re going to review it shortly. Can you tell me when you are currently planning on posting this video?”

Amason responded, “We will not be posting that video. We will also be eliminating the dropbox file shortly. Please make arrangements to preserve the video as you see fit, as soon as possible.”

Pirkle responded, “Just to confirm, you’re saying that no video versions of Ms. Colon’s 10/28 TedX speech will be posted online. Do I have that right?”

“You are correct, we will not post any version of the video online,” Amason said.

The next week, on Dec. 16, the University of Kentucky released this statement from William E. Thro, the university’s general counsel: “Mr. Price’s representatives notified the University of Kentucky that they believed some of the content in the video talk in question was defamatory. In light of this concern, the university chose to exercise its discretion not to post the video. The university does not presently have possession of the video. The university takes no position on whether the content was, in fact, defamatory.”

Alternative statements

But it wasn’t easy for the university to figure out how to explain the decision. The emails show multiple versions and drafts of the public statement, and a follow-up exchange with Gravity’s Pirkle, who wanted to make it clear to reporters that the company didn’t have a role in the decision.

For example, the emails show an earlier version of the statement that was sent by a University of Kentucky representative to Bloomberg reporter Weise on Dec. 15, explaining in part that the university had received complaints that the materials in question infringed on an unnamed individual’s rights. “Consistent with its typical policy when it receives an objection of this nature, the University did not post this material.”

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In addition, the emails show that university spokesman Jay Blanton at one point asked colleagues, internally, if they would be using a stronger version of the statement: “given that this matter is the subject of potential litigation, the university did not post the video in question.” That was not used publicly.

Blanton would later clarify in a statement to Bloomberg that Price’s representatives “did not threaten litigation and they are not the direct reason that we decided not to post the video. They raised concerns about the truthfulness of what is said in the video. We don’t know about the veracity of the those [sic] statements or not. We have simply decided not to post the video.”

The day before Bloomberg ran that follow-up story, the internal emails show, Gravity Payments’ Pirkle had contacted University of Kentucky staffer Amason via email again, writing, “I just spoke with a Bloomberg reporter who said you gave a statement saying we (gravity payments) demanded the 10/28 TedX speech by Kristie Colon be removed. As you know this is 100% incorrect.”

Blanton, the University of Kentucky’s executive director of public relations and marketing, responded to Pirkle’s message by assuring him that wasn’t what the university told the reporter. He provided Pirkle with a copy of the final statement from Thro, the university’s general counsel.

Dan Price accepts the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the GeekWire Awards in 2013.
Dan Price accepts the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the GeekWire Awards in 2013.

Both Price and Pirkle declined to address our questions this week.

Price, who is a longtime GeekWire member, spoke at the last GeekWire Startup Day and was recognized as GeekWire’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.

He has told GeekWire reporters on multiple occasions over the past year that he believes we are not portraying his story fairly or in proper context. GeekWire reported in December that Price had not mortgaged his properties to put the money into the company, contrary to what he told Inc. magazine for a cover story about the aftermath of his announcement. As of this morning, public records continue to show no recorded mortgages on his properties.

The fate of the video

So who has the video of the TEDxUKY talk? UK’s Blanton said a “small number” of links to the video were initially sent out by the university’s Office of Student Involvement. “At some point after those initial requests, the university deleted its copy as we had no need for it,” he said.

In an update on her blog this morning, Colón explained that she was sent a link to the video but didn’t save it.

Due to incoming questions about the status of my talk and whether or not I’ll be posting it online, I thought it appropriate to let you all know the following… On November 23, 2015 I was sent a link to a video sample of my talk and was told it was for viewing purposes only. The email also stated final videos would be posted the week of December 7, 2015. Believing the video would be available in the near future, and unaware I had permission to download the file, I didn’t secure a copy of my talk.

Colón also recently addressed the question of the video’s fate in response to one of her Twitter followers.

https://twitter.com/kristiecolon1/status/686182268960813056

Colón’s lawyer, Katrina Saleen, wrote in a Dec. 11 email to Guy Cohen, a lawyer who represents the TED conferences, that her client “would prefer not to be erased from the event entirely, if possible.”

However, in addition to the university’s decision not to release the video, a description of Colón’s talk has also been removed from the event site for TEDxUKY. The description had read, in part, “Kristie was married at 20, divorced at 27, and lived through a relationship that was abusive in every sense of the word.”

In her blog post this week, Colón explained why she decided to give the TEDx talk and tell her story. She wrote as part of the post …

That’s how I ended up giving a talk to 100 people about the amazing power of writing, of putting language around thoughts and pen to paper. It’s also how the talk ended up being debated and deleted, how reporters turned into publicists and why I had the hardest time writing anything–anything at all–when it was over. Phrases like “potential defamation lawsuit” and “disgusting things claimed” were being texted, emailed and phoned in to me. Basically, it was an introvert’s worst nightmare.

And so I did what I usually do when the Internet is having a temper tantrum. I sat back and watched. I watched some reporters do their job, brilliantly. And I saw others try, and try, and try, but still come up short. I watched people pretend to speak news but have nothing left to say. I watched people lie, omit, speculate, and bully. And it was not unlike our current presidential news cycle: a bit messy, mostly nonsense, and the truth slightly distorted.

One thing is clear from the internal emails: the University of Kentucky had no idea what it was getting into.

University officials who hadn’t been involved in the event were taken by surprise by inquiries from the media — initially referring inquiries about Colón’s talk to TED officials, before realizing that it was ultimately a university issue. The larger TED organization licenses its online tools and branding to groups that run independent TEDx events, in this case at the University of Kentucky.

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“Kristie had not informed the local organizers that her ex-husband who she would talk (about) had become a public figure in the last few months,” wrote Kathy Johnson, a member of the university’s PR and marketing team, as the news was starting to break. “It all sounds a little strange to me!”

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