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Harvard Cheating Scandal: Communicating a Crisis

PR pro weighs in on university’s choice to release news of cheating investigation
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The recent buzz about cheating at Harvard—and the media storm that followed—may seem like bad PR, but it can actually serve as an example of just how to act when a crisis strikes.

After Harvard announced last week that it was investigating a possible cheating incident on campus, the media exploded, instantly latching on to the “Harvard Cheating Scandal.” How could over 100 students cheat on a take-home exam at an elite institution? Days later, newswires erupted again, this time with the students’ perspective on how the professor had encouraged collaboration throughout the course, and that no cheating had occurred, thus casting the university in a negative light.

This may seem like a big headache for an institution that’s still investigating the allegations, but it turns out, Harvard—and its communications team—broke the news exactly when it should have, according to media relations professional Bill Tyson, who has been advising colleges and universities on getting media attention for more than 30 years through his firm Morrison & Tyson Communications.

“If you look at the process it seems to have been thorough and direct,” he says. “Many schools internally would know that this is going on, this investigation, but they would not have contacted the media. That to me doesn’t make sense. To have sent an email to faculty, students, and their parents and not to have informed the media would not have been helpful. Many schools just close ranks, circle the wagons. They hope no one will hear outside of this community and that’s foolish; people hear immediately.”

Tyson says that crises often start as just problems, but then escalate when institutions hold back on giving information and telling their own story. “People don’t understand reality sometimes, and the reality is that once you tell something to somebody, you might as well assume the news is public.”

Many of the articles initially published dealt with the news in a guilty until proven innocent manner, but the original announcement from Harvard states that the Administrative Board is reviewing the allegations under clearly defined procedures and has made no judgements, says Jeff Neal, Harvard’s senior communications officer.

“Harvard decided to communicate with our community about this issue because we deeply value academic integrity, an issue that goes to the heart of our educational missions,” he says.  “At the same time, we also deeply value fairness and due process.”

What’s next?

“In the coming weeks, the board will meet with each student who is under investigation and work toward the resolution of each individual case,” shares Neal. The university will be looking into the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final. “That is the type of information that the process is designed to bring forward, and we will review all of the facts as they arise. The process is just beginning. It will take time and require patience.”

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