When news of a criminal conspiracy makes headlines across the nation, people pay attention and wait hungrily for the next juicy details. Every company, government, and individual involved must spring into action to fix what may have gone wrong. Sounds familiar? The college admissions bribery scandal, labelled Operation Varsity Blues, implicated over fifty parents including CEOs and high profile celebrities (notably Full House star Lori Loughlin and Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman), college admission test administrators, top university athletic personnel, and a questionable college preparatory academy in a ring of money laundering and racketeering. A testament to the power of money and fame, underqualified students were admitted into prestigious universities, including Stanford, Yale and USC on falsified grounds of exceptional athletic abilities and fabricated test performances for eight years.
When hit with a scandal of this magnitude, it’s imperative to think before you act. Let’s take a look at the crisis communication strategies of the key players involved in Operation Varsity Blues.
Crisis Management by the Universities:
Previously respected for their honorable reputations, elite athletic programs, and rigorous coursework, the universities involved in this scandal are now faced with an uphill battle to regain trust across the nation. Some of the coaches involved in the plot have already resigned or have been placed on leave by their schools. A press release from USC highlights makes an effort to divert their involvement by stating, “illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university”. Yale University’s website for the Office of the President now features a Frequently Asked Questions page regarding the admissions scheme, which begins by establishing the university’s timeline regarding former women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith’s departure and their discovery of the scandal.
These actions acknowledge the university staff’s misconduct and attempt to dissolve any suspicion that the schools themselves played a role in Operation Varsity Blues. The schools endeavor to re-establish their high prestige so they minimize discussion of internal remediation. While the public may take detailed audits of their admissions processes as the universities admitting fault, the universities’ failure to convey such plans could be disheartening for many prospective students.
One of the most impactful releases comes from UCLA’s Director of Athletics released on the UCLA Athletics website. The statement begins by acknowledging the people’s pain and anger, outlines the admissions process, and promises to publicly share the actions the university will take to prevent such a scheme from occurring in the future. The first person perspective gives a touch of humanity to the narrative and offers sincerity to its claims of shared outrage. This is especially refreshing when contrasted with the detached, formal tone of other university press releases that mostly aim to distance the schools from the scandal rather than offer support to the public. Even though UCLA’s writing does not share any details regarding actions the university will take nor offer any apology, the timely statement renews faith in the institution through its heartfelt promise of transparency, communication, and greater accountability from the university.
But what of the students who were admitted? Many of the students claim to have had no prior knowledge of their falsified applications, leaving the universities to determine the appropriate actions to take regarding these individuals.
Edit: Universities including Stanford and Yale have since rescinded admission offers from students associated with the scheme and USC has frozen the enrollment status of its students who were unfairly admitted.
Other Key Players in the Bribery Scandal:
While there have been numerous high-profile officials and public figures accused in Operation Varsity Blues, there are very few formal statements from these individuals regarding their actions or the accusations made. From a public relations standpoint, this decision makes sense as it prevents any emotional outbursts from being twisted by the media and enabling the accused to collect facts and strategize a narrative. Lori Loughlin, who allegedly paid $500,000 admit her daughters into USC, deleted her Twitter account, and her publicity team even arranged “safe passage” (an agreement to let Loughlin turn herself in rather than a messy public arrest) when she arrived from Canada to the United States after the news broke.
However, the lack of communication from the accused individuals have been perceived by some to suggest that they feel little remorse for the crimes they may have committed. It is especially difficult for the accused to take a public stance because while some may sympathize with their efforts to support their children and secure them successful futures, others may feel upset that the accused chose to take away opportunities from more deserving kids.
Netflix and Operation Varsity Blues:
Companies are avoiding association with the biggest college admissions scandal in United States history like a plague. Many firms have terminated employment of individuals implicated in Operation Varsity Blues. Netflix is leading by example by postponing the release of Felicity Huffman’s latest film “Otherhood” to an unspecified date. Why take such drastic measures before anyone has been convicted of a crime? Acting now allows these businesses to stay ahead of the story and control the narrative as more information is uncovered by the government’s investigation. In contrast, failing to take action now could be construed to indicate support of the wrongful choices made in the bribery scandal.
As the federal investigation into Operation Varsity Blues continues, the integrity of the American college admissions process has been called to question and universities, companies, and people alike are scrambling to pick up the pieces. In the face of a public relations nightmare like this, the goals of restoring credibility and rectifying possible errors are clear, but determining the right strategy and plan of action is difficult without consulting PR professionals trained in crisis management. The nation is on its toes as we wait to see what comes next.
Want more information on how to handle a crisis?
Check out our blog series: When Crises Come Knocking – Part 1: Planning is Essential