What Education Marketers Can Learn From “Operation Varsity Blues”

By Lisa Wolfe, President, L. Wolfe Communications

There are many lessons to be learned from the college admissions scandal–dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by federal agents. The simplest one might be for parents: “Don’t do that,” as WeAreTeachers Editorial Director, Hannah Hudson, recently discussed on Headline News. But there are also important lessons that education marketers and education leaders can learn as well. Perhaps one not more important than planning for a crisis before you actually encounter one.

Getting blindsided by something in the news that has an impact on your business is never pleasant and with today’s proliferation of social media, what starts as a small problem can quickly go viral and not in a good way! While these situations can sometimes not be avoided, planning for how you are going to handle crisis communications in advance of an actual crisis allows companies and school districts to manage the communications flow in a way that helps them get ahead of negative coverage and, ideally, change the story into one that benefits them or at the very least does no harm.

A good crisis communications plan serves as a guidebook to navigating all matter of complex situations that could affect the organization’s profitability, integrity or credibility. Walking through the following seven step process can help any organization develop a plan for managing communications during a PR crisis.

1. Develop crisis scenarios. 

First, think about the types of crises that could impact your company. A student data breach? Assessments being compromised? A top executive begin accused of a felony? Write brief descriptions of what your top 3-5 crises might entail, including external and internal stakeholders for each.

2. Identify your crisis communications team. 

A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your organization’s Crisis Communications Team. In most instances, the CEO or other “C-level’ executive will lead the team, with your PR agency or internal marketing/PR staff and legal counsel as advisers. Other team members will include heads of different programs or divisions, depending on the crisis.

3. Identify and train spokespeople.

On an ongoing basis–but particularly during a crisis–it is crucial for all organizations to have trained spokespeople. Each member of the crisis communications team who has not previously received media training should do so during this phase of the development of your crisis communications plan.

4. Establish notification systems. 

While it seems simplistic, it is important for any crisis communications plan to have up-to-date, accurate information for reaching internal and external stakeholders in the case of a crisis. Current cell phone numbers (business and personal) as well as email information and the stakeholders preferred method of being contacted in the case of a crisis should be included in this part of the plan for the internal team as well as external audiences, such as students and news media. Different notification systems may be developed to address the various crisis scenarios. For example, the CTO needs to be notified immediately in the case of a data breach, but perhaps not as quickly in other scenarios.

5. Identify monitoring systems. 

Intelligence gathering is an essential component of both crisis prevention and crisis response. Knowing what’s being said about you on social media, in traditional media, by your employees, customers, and other stakeholders often allows you to catch a negative “trend” that, if unchecked, turns into a crisis. In addition, monitoring feedback during a crisis will allow you to accurately adapt strategies and tactics.

6. Develop holding statements. 

While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements,” messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks, must be developed in advance to support each of the identified crisis scenarios. In many instances, you will have less than 15 minutes before a response is needed to help you get on top of the news cycle. The six key components of holding statements are empathy, action, reassurance, examples, details and update. An initial holding statement can be as simple as “We are aware of this serious situation and will provide an update as soon as details are available.”

7. Develop key messages for each crisis scenario. 

With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis? Again, these are placeholder messages and statements that can be modified to address the details of a particular crisis. Having them on hand takes the pressure off of creating them from scratch during a high stress situation. Each of these key messages should also be adaptable for different forms of media, ranging from traditional news media to social media.

Years ago, a travel agent who was trying to sell trip insurance had a convincing pitch. She said, “No one who ever bought travel insurance regretted having it when they needed it.” That is the same with having a crisis communications plan for your company, organization or school district. Develop a crisis communications plan, revisit it frequently to update it to reflect new stakeholders, potential crises and communications channels. You’ll be glad you have it when the next “Operation Varsity Blues,” data breach or another unfortunate situation arises.


Founded in April 2000, L. Wolfe Communications offers its clients big agency expertise and small agency attention and affordability. We are a network of senior, experienced public relations executives with a variety of complementary experience and expertise. Each member of our team has 10-20 years of public relations/communications experience with specific experience in education, technology and consumer public relations. We all have extensive experience in public relations and communications for the education and library markets.

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