The news that my friends, my kids, my coworkers and my husband kept circling back to this week was the bombshell college admissions scandal. Having one child in college and two in high school, the angst of college admissions is palpable. Then, to find out about this level of cheating … I don’t want to sound naive and say I was shocked, but, well, I was shocked. Not only was this investigation stunning on face value for the apparent lies, bribes and scheming, it also made us all wonder how big this story is and if this is just the beginning. And, Felicity Huffman? No, not my favorite Desperate Housewife? And, Lori Loughlin? AKA Aunt Becky??
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this means that perhaps you’ve had a very busy week. If that’s the case, you can catch up with this one minute video from The New York Times.
As a business owner who is always curious about how business in general runs, how business reacts and the nuances of media, I couldn’t help but be curious about a different angle with this breaking story: the public relations side and how the various PR teams are working behind the scenes. You have a group of famous people, high-caliber colleges and universities, C-suite parents and the companies they steer, all in crisis mode trying to figure out how they are going to weather this storm. You also have real people with real friends and family. How is that playing out?
Today, we look at this angle for a better understanding as to why these individuals aren’t taking to social media to apologize and how all these players may be being advised. And we do so with an insider’s knowledge. We asked Lauren Reed, President and Founder of Reed Public Relations, to walk us through what is likely happening behind the scenes.
What’s the lesson learned for all of us here (beyond the obvious of not lying and being truthful!)?
Lauren Reed: You should never do anything that you would regret seeing in the headlines! Deeds done in the dark will almost always become illuminated at some point. Truth has a way of prevailing, and everything is so much more intense when you are in the public eye. This whole situation also has me really thinking about personal core values. What is the legacy we want to leave? Do our actions reflect this?
What are they likely being advised to do?
LR: Because it is an ongoing matter, legal is likely insisting they remain silent. If and when they release something, it will be a brief and strategic statement. For now, though, they are staying off social media and not speaking with media even if they truly desire to respond to their fans. In my experience, that is always the most difficult PR aspect of a crisis situation. Even if they want to be transparent and show remorse publicly, they simply can’t say much yet.
What is the playbook for the universities whose employees are implicated?
LR: Universities should conduct their own investigations and have policies in place for incidents like this. If it becomes known that an employee is implicated and there is evidence, they should cut ties immediately and take a hard look at how it happened. Almost all universities have an academic integrity policy in place that should be reinforced at a time like this. And finally, cooperate with the investigation. This is the single best way a university can protect their brand during this crisis.
What about the PR team assigned to them? How do you prep for this?
LR: We tell our clients that a crisis plan is like an insurance policy. I hope they never have to use it, but we’ll all sleep better at night knowing it is in place. A good crisis plan will cover all processes for different crisis scenarios and a response plan for all stakeholders. In this case, for the celebrities, it would be their fans, their employers (Netflix, Hallmark, etc.) and media, among others. For the universities, it would be groups such as their students, donors and board members.
Does your team do crisis management?
LR: Yes, our team helps a variety of clients with crisis management on issues that affect their businesses. Crises are unique to each organization and can almost never be predicted. This could be anything from a disgruntled hotel guest comment that goes viral to the death of a high-profile CEO. Our team works with organizations to develop a solid foundation with a crisis plan and then manages crises as they come up for clients.
Does this academic scandal remind you of any other scandals out there?
LR: It brings to mind the NCAA men’s basketball situation with multiple prominent coaches and athletes involved in an athletic cheating scandal. There are still few details that have been revealed in an investigation that has been ongoing for multiple years and impacted numerous universities.
Will their careers ever recover?
LR: It will certainly take time, but I do believe they can recover if they truly want to make things right with fans. There is no denying this is a huge blow, but it isn’t the R. Kelly scandal. And while obviously the magnitude of this fraud is much, much, larger, it actually reminds me of when Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting. She took a hiatus, and we all remember her arrest, but it’s not the only or first thing I think of when she comes to mind.
I am a bit naive when it comes to PR. Do “normal” people hire PR people for matters that most people deal with on their own?
LR: If and when we work with individuals on a crisis situation, we’re typically brought on through their legal teams. The same principles that we’d advise a Fortune 500 company apply to an individual. Be open, honest and show true remorse.
When would you advise someone to go from handling a matter on their own to hiring a professional?
LR: I truly think it depends on the situation and what is at stake. When in doubt, make a phone call and get an honest assessment from PR counsel. I’d probably look for one with APR credentials, as they will have closely studied PR ethics. Most PR practitioners will be upfront and tell you if you need them or not.
Can you believe this is actually happening?
LR: The ’90s kid in me is really having trouble connecting Aunt Becky to all of this. Have mercy!
Thanks, Lauren, for the insight into an investigation that will likely have ramifications for years to come. So many questions: How did they even get lured into this? Did they Google something? Were they approached? Why? But, as Lauren says, “Deeds done in the dark will almost always become illuminated at some point.” I do believe that.
When I’m mad, I cook. This college scandal has me cooking a LOT. If this sounds like you and you need more recipes, check out the StyleBlueprint recipe archives right here.