Operation Varsity Blues
An example of a media “crisis” that occurred in the past five years.
Labeled, “Operation Varsity Blues” (2011-2019), the College Bribery scandal exposes college prep academy involvement in racketeering and money laundering with over fifty notable parents, including CEOs and celebrities university exam admins, and college athletic personnel. Most notably of the Hollywood stars are Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Following is an analysis of the bribery Scandal pertaining to Crisis Communication. The report includes famous Universities Yale, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, amongst others, who become under investigation for admitting students with questionable accomplishments, including claiming false test scores and athletic participation that did not exist. The college bribery scandal and public availability of information forces organizations to re-think how they plan and utilize communication plans and available social media platforms to mitigate risk and engage with stakeholders. The scandal has been a PR crisis for parents, students, faculty, and all stakeholders invested in the accused universities or institutions. (Sen, 2019)
How Did It Work?
For the Universities involved in the 2019 college bribery scandal, each organization faces its own financial, personal, organizational, and technological crisis with information available 24/7 to a global consumer audience of potential school applicants and stakeholders. According to the Guardian (2019), several members of the administrative staff of colleges involved received monetary compensation to allow fraudulent individuals to pose as students and complete the ACT or SAT exams. In other scenarios, exam proctors provided answers or fixed incorrect test responses. It has been mentioned that students may have faked disabilities to receive additional opportunities for fraud, including completion of an exam offsite or other time to complete the test. The Mastermind of the operation it has become known by June 2020 is William Singer, who ran The Key, a college prep company. (Shamsian, 2020)
In addition to the ACT/SAT fraud scheme, a recruiting scheme is now public involving college coaches receiving bribes to accept students as athletic prospects giving them a clear advantage over a typical undergraduate application. Throughout the PR scandal, ‘clients paid (Rick) Singer a total of $25m to bribe coaches and university administrators, prosecutors say.” (Gaurdian, 2019) The accused, Rick Singer, mentioned in March 2019 that he “created a side door that would guarantee families would get in.” The former Key College Pre Company mastermind now faces up to 65 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million. (Goody-Brown, 2019)
|March 12, 2019||Boston Federal prosecutors charge 50+ individuals.|
|March 25, 2019||12 out of 50+ defendants plead not guilty. Eight schools are notified by the U.S Department of Education per their pending investigation.|
|March 28, 2019||Rudy Meredith, Yale’s former soccer coach pleads guilty|
|April 3, 2019||The first parent of 33 initially mentioned pleads guilty. The admission is that the father paid an individual to correct his child’s incorrect ACT responses.|
|April 9, 2019||Celebrities Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli and 14 others are indicted. Charges include conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering.|
|April 15, 2019||Celebrity couple and Mossimo plead not guilty.|
|April 24, 2019||Michael Center, former (men’s) tennis coach at the University of Texas pleads guilty.|
|April 26, 2019||Knowledge becomes uncovered that two families pay millions of dollars for their children’s admission into Stanford and Yale.|
|May 13, 2019||Celebrity Felicity Huffman pleads guilty of having her daughters SAT scores corrected for $15,000.|
|May 15, 2019||Two students at Georgetown University are expelled for having connections to families involved in the scandal. As a result, civil action suits agains Georgetown are filed by the students.|
|June 12, 2019||Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer is the first to be sentenced. The sentencing includes one day in prison, a $10,000 fine, and two years supervised release.|
|Sept 13, 2019||Celebrity Felicity Huffman is the only parent to be sentenced at this time.|
|Sept 24, 2019||LA-based business Exec Devin Sloane receives 4 months in prison + 500 hours community service (over 2 years), and a fine of $95,000.|
|Sept 26, 2019||Another LA-based business Exec is sentenced.|
|Present Day (June, 2020)||Business Insider (Shamsian, 2020) provided an updated list. To access the updated list of involvement pertaining to college athletics, college admissions and school administration, and parents. Click here|
|Source (Goldy-Brown, 2019)|
College Coaches Involved
After the first few months that the college scandal went public, the following list of coaches involved was made public:
|Michael Center||Head Tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin|
|Gordon Ernst||Head tennis coach at Georgetown|
|William Ferguson||Women’s volleyball coach at Wake Forest|
|Laura Janke||Assistant women’s soccer coach at USC|
|Ali Khosroshahin||Head women’s soccer coach at USC|
|Rudolph Meredith||Women’s head soccer coach at Yale|
|Jorge Salcedo||Head soccer coach at the University of California, Los Angeles|
|John Vandemoer||Sailing coach at Stanford pled guilty to racketeering charges and of accepting $610,000 in bribes.|
|Jovan Vavic||Water polo coach at USC|
Business Insider (Shamsian, 2020) provided an updated list. To access the updated list of involvement pertaining to college athletics, college admissions and school administration, and parents.
The public became aware quickly of the magnitude, and the response was outrage. Popular media channels covered the story, such as the New York Times, who begin an article on March 12, 2019, by stating, “A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million.” (Medina et al., 2019) Social media sparked consumer outrage as some students, such as the daughter of Laughlin and Mossimo, have public social media profiles and act as their own brand’s Spokesperson. (Shamsian, 2020)
The bribery scandal because of the high profile celebrity involvement in conjunction with prestigious U.S. Universities from late March of 2019 – present-day 2020 has received global coverage via multiple communication channels. The public outcry was severing enough that streaming platform service Netflix postponed a scheduled release of a movie including Bribery Scandal accused Felicity Huffman and her film titled “Otherhood.” (Sen, 2019) Lori Laughlin’s daughter, an Instagram Influencer and USC Crew Scholarship recipient for her fake Athletic career, was quickly exposed online, and coverage spread to domestic cable networks and popular internet communication channels.
How did shareholders/executives/administration respond?
For each party involved in the massive PR scandal, responses vary. For example, parents had to address different scenarios, including the activities of their children. For example, a report surfaced concerning Loughlin and Mossimo’s daughter stating, “at the time of her mother’s arrest, Olivia Jade (daughter) had been celebrating spring break on a yacht owned by a member of USC’s board of trustees, Rick Caruso.” (Ritzen, 2019) PR Teams representing parents, students, and Universities require ongoing strategetic utilization of social media and central websites, amongst other communication platforms, to address stakeholder concerns.
Many of the students claimed that they did not have knowledge or involvement in the bribery scandal. A claim of innocence from students makes the task of punishment complex. However, as of June 2020, “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.” (Sen, 2019) By April of 2019, several coaches involved in the scheme have resigned. (Sen, 2019)
What was the University Response? How did the messages differ from various audiences and/or with various media? Was it effective?
The eight universities involved in the scandal have not been found guilty of any crimes at this time. After the March 2019 indictments, all involved universities have made public comments to mitigate risk and address stakeholder concerns. The coaches involved in the bribery case have been placed on leave or fired from their Universities.
Yale, who were first made aware of potential wrongdoing in November of 2018 were kept in the dark until March 2019 when the extent of the investigation from the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office concerning Rudy Meredith was made available. For context, Rudy Meredith is a Yale soccer coach involved in the Bribery Scandal of 2019. Upon receiving information concerning the scandal in March 2019, Yale Responds by establishing communication on their Office of the President website page for Frequently Asked Questions on the Page.
On a similar timeline in 2019, USC publicizes a Press Release via their online Press Room (2019) mentioning, “USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.” (Press Room, 2019) UCLA took the initiative in March 2019, releasing a statement via its owned website. “We (UCLA) believe that our process is among the most demanding and thorough in collegiate athletics, but, as the recent news illustrates, it is not foolproof. Despite the fact that we have confidence in the existing process, a breach of the system can obviously occur when individuals choose to act unethically, and contrary to the level of integrity that we expect.” (Guerrero, 2019)
Evidence of crisis preparation (or lack thereof)?
In addition to utilizing a central website for communication and crisis response, several Universities involved in the scandal display PR Crisis Communication best practices to address audiences directly. Evidence of University crisis preparation is evident through the analysis of statements publicly available online and through social media. Crisis communication responses, for example, include the USC Trojans not only provide comment on their Press Room page but are social media savvy enough to address concerns on Twitter via their @USC_Athletics account (see below). Several University institutions also display acumen by releasing ambiguous yet accountable statements via owned communication channels. For full examples, please reference Appendix A-C. Sample Twitter messages are available below. The images are screenshots from the Time’s article available here. (Greenspan, 2019)
Each University has addressed the concern and willingness to aid in investigations. As mentioned above, no charges stand against University entities. Thus the crisis communication and messaging can be argued as a success from the perspective of University involvement and PR response. (Greenspan, 2019)
Evidence of short- and long-term impact?
The short-term impact for Universities includes the reallocation of times, resources, and financing to address scandal concerns and mitigate risk to the brand and public image. Universities needed to reallocate resources to comment privately and publicly on the matter with the real long-term impact of each communication and method of delivery still unknown and available to analyze in perpetuity.
A known long-term impact is that Universities and all entities must now prepare for crisis communication as it pertains to all aspects of an organization, including the association with third-party vendors and businesses. In other words, Universities now need to prepare communication plans for unethical practices or intent from any individual in any capacities (public or private) associated with the college or any program within the college. Rick Singer, the mind behind the scandal, was not employed directly by a University. However, each University had to invest time, money, and significant resources in crisis communication response because of the actions of staff, coaches, parents, and third-party associations such as that of Singer’s college prep company.
What can you learn from this as a future professional communicator? As a consumer?
As a professional communicator, I can learn to prepare appropriate press releases and commentary in both tone and word choice for publication in the occurrence that an investigation presents itself. Social Media communication channels and blog platforms are free and available to the public. It is essential to obtain the appropriate URL and handles associated with each University program in education and athletics. For example, any URL that includes the titles “USC” should be purchased to avoid a public party purchasing and to communicate fraudulently posing as the University. The same concept applies to the signup of any Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram page with the name “USC.” As a communication professional, I need to continue to analyze case studies, such as the college bribery scandal and continue to learn to provide dynamic, ethically appropriate responses based on evolving societal norms and verifiable empirical data.
As a consumer, we can learn that not all accomplishments may come from merit achievement. We can also learn how to stay informed with the messages our brand’s relay to the public. For example, as a member of the Washington State University program, I will carefully follow the University’s words via public communication channels. As consumers, we have learned where and how to obtain information and that a non-response may intend to be a strategic response of silence. Subjective belief is that Universities have survived the PR crisis by publicly engaging with stakeholders and offering accountability for mistakes with available facts.
Best practices, ways to prevent, things to watch for, etc. that would be valuable for future organizations who may face a similar crisis scenario.
The best practice to ensure this scenario does not occur involves not accepting bribes or participating in unethical practices. As we cannot always guarantee the actions of others, it is a recommendation that organizations deploy active crisis communication plans. The college bribery dilemma forces Universities to speak publicly, and most organizations have designation a Spokesperson. According to the CDC, establishing credibility and trust relies on incorporating five elements, written or spoken. Those elements include:
- Empathy & Caring
- Competence & Expertise
- Honesty & Openness
- Commitment & Dedication
- Accountability, (CERC: Spokesperson, p. 6)
Additional Spokesperson Tips: Limit jargon and acronyms, Tailor messages to an easy level of comprehension, Use humor with caution, Refute negative allegations without repeating them, Gather feedback, Avoid one-liners, clichés, and off-the-cuff comments (CERC: Spokesperson, p. 6)
Conclusion which summarizes the content and discusses implications or lessons
The college bribery scandal of 2019, or “Operation Varsity Blues,” is an example of the complexities of modern-day organizations and the standard vetting process for college applicants at prestigious universities. In addition to addressing the concerns above, the need for Crisis Communication planning is becoming increasingly evident. Each university utilized owned communication channels, such as an accessible website or social media account, to address stakeholders with appropriate tone and language. Obvious University PR response implication is the exposure that all employees need to be held accountable to the values and messages of the organization or brand. Crisis Communication planning and response are necessary to ensure that individual motives do not impact long-term organizational objectives or public image. Although Rick Singer was not employed directly by a University, he had an impact on several reputable firms and forced their communication resources to address the implications of the bribery. Actions I must ethically assume leadership did not entirely prepare for from 2011-2018 the years of the internal investigation. To succeed through a crisis, a brand should research, design, and implement a crisis communication plan. If you are any business is struggling to develop an appropriate Crisis Communication plan, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
CERC: Spokesperson (2014 Update). CDC U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Durkin, Erin (Mar 13, 2019) US college admissions scandal: how did the scheme work and who was charged. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/12/college-admissions-fraud-scandal-felicity-huffman-lori-loughlin
Goody-Brown (Sept 30, 2019) College Admissions Scandal – Key Players and Timeline. Retrieved from https://www.studentdebtrelief.us/news/college-admissions-scandal-key-players-and-timeline/
Greenspan, Rachel (May 15, 2019) Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman’s College Admissions Scandal Remains Ongoing. Here Are the Latest Developments. Time Magazine. Retrieved from https://time.com/5549921/college-admissions-bribery-scandal/
Guerrero, Dan (March 22, 2019) Message from Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero. Bruins Athletics. Retrieved from https://uclabruins.com/news/2019/3/22/bruin-athletics-message-from-director-of-athletics-dan-guerrero.aspx
Medina, Jennifer. Benner, Katie. & Taylor, Kate (March 12, 2019) Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/college-admissions-cheating-scandal.html
Press Room (March 29, 2019) USC statement regarding college admissions investigation. USC Press Room. Retrieved from https://pressroom.usc.edu/usc-statement-regarding-college-admissions-investigation/
Ritzen, Stacey (Sept 17, 2019) A Complete Timeline Of The Lori Loughlin College Admissions Scandal. Uproxx. Retrieved from https://uproxx.com/viral/lori-loughlin-college-admissions-scandal-complete-timeline/
Sen, Devina (April 29, 2019). MANAGING FALLOUT FROM THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS BRIBERY SCANDAL. Retrieved from https://upraisepr.com/crisis-management-college-admissions-bribery-scandal/
Shamsian, Jacob. McLaughlin, Kelly (May 26, 2020) Here’s the full list of people charged in the college admissions cheating scandal, and who has pleaded guilty so far. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.insider.com/college-admissions-cheating-scandal-full-list-people-charged-2019-3
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