The College Admissions Scandal: A Lesson in Reputation Management

I was on a long car trip a couple weeks back with an old college friend, and as the miles rolled by, we got a chance to share our perspectives on the issues of the day. He’s among my smartest friends (I tell him he’s easily in the “Top 50”) and works as an international consultant advising technology companies about go-to-market strategies. Like me, he stays up on the news, and despite the fact that we live 3,000 miles from one another, we seem to share common wisdom on many issues.

When the topic came to the recent college admissions scandals involving some high-profile folks, his first observation was how impressed he was with the prominent New York attorney who has admitted guilt in a scheme to boost his daughter’s ACT scores, contrition described in this Wall Street Journal story.

Having worked a fair share of crises over the years, I pressed my friend on his reaction. “Impressed? Really?” He went on to explain how refreshingly rare it was to see people – in this case, Gordon Caplan, the former chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP – stand up and take responsibility for their actions.

“I give that guy a lot of credit,” he said.

That may be especially true, given the fact that his guilty plea mostly likely will come with a prison term, as it will for about a dozen other defendants (out of some 700) to confess wrongdoing, including actress Felicity Huffman, who said she was “ashamed of the pain she has caused.”

These guilty pleas notwithstanding, my friend, of course, is right. People caught in the harsh light of scandal – celebrity and commoners alike – typically default to denial and dissembling, either unwilling to accept responsibility or indignant that laws actually apply to the rich and famous as well. Many more defendants are fighting the allegations, and there may be more charges in the offing, according to reports. Some of the accused ultimately may be acquitted – there are some legal technicality defenses being bandied about – but those of us involved in the business of reputation management understand that the taint of this scandal will endure far beyond the trials, especially for those who continue to use their power and money to exculpate themselves from such “inconvenient” legal entanglements.

Then there are the parents willing to go a step further.

Meet Juda Engelmayer, the president of Herald PR, a New York crisis communications firm. According to a piece by Roxanne Roberts in The Washington Post, Mr. Engelmayer has developed what I suppose is an emerging tactic among today’s public relations practitioner, a means of subordinating negative stories about his clients so that they aren’t readily found in Google searches. (Should we have a debate about whether this actually qualifies as public relations?) Among his clients is disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, for whom Mr. Englemayer, according to the article, is making “sure that media coverage doesn’t taint the jury pool.” (Good luck with that, sir.)

And now he says he is working with the families caught up in the admissions imbroglio. One client the article says is a wealthy businessman who was accused of paying off a coach to get his son into an Ivy League college. How do you make the stink of that accusation go away? Apparently, not by apologizing, but by creating new websites that highlight all the good things that his kid has done in his young life. That new content will then push the icky stories about dad to pages 4 and 5 of web searches, beyond where most employers typically look, thus keeping the father’s transgressions from sullying his child’s reputation.

If you are getting the sense that I’m squirming a bit in my seat as I describe this digitized approached to reputation management, you would be right.

What my friend on that car ride knew instinctively is exactly what 40 years in public relations have taught me – that the most effective means for moving beyond scandal is by accepting responsibility, apologizing and asserting that enduring lessons have been learned. Rather than pay a PR firm $15,000 to $30,000 a month to scrub the internet of their discomfiting actions, parents might leave their children to find their own moral compasses and provide an honest accounting of what they have observed.

Here’s an idea: How about using their college admissions essay – or their popular YouTube channel, for that matter – to share the underlying lessons of this whole sordid affair? You might succeed in impressing more than my friend, but perhaps even a college admissions officer or future employer.  

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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