School of Communication
Communication Studies: Advertising and Public Relations
crisis communication, situational crisis communication theory, image repair theory, college admission scandal
Advertising and Promotion Management | Business and Corporate Communications
Grach, Rebecca, "Application of Crisis Communication Theories during the 2019 College Admissions Scandal: Operation Varsity Blues" (2021). Senior Honors Theses. 1058.
Operation Varsity Blues was a federal investigation in 2019 that discovered an enormous college admissions scandal, where wealthy parents were paying to have someone bribe school officials or coaches with the end goal of having their child accepted into an elite university. As the investigation was released, each of the eight universities involved sent out press releases that explained where the university stood regarding the scandal and what they were doing in response. Using the well-establish crisis communication theories of Benoit’s Image Repair Theory (1995) and Coomb’s Situational Crisis Communication Theory (2007), a qualitative content analysis on the communications from the universities, specifically their press releases, surrounding the crisis, allows a better understanding for what specific response strategies were applied in this situation. The study concludes that while the universities each denied responsibility regarding the scandal itself, they also communicated that they would take full responsibility in preventing the crisis from happening again. This combination of strategies allowed the universities to maintain their innocence while reassuring the public that they were making changes to prevent cheating in the future. Understanding how the theory’s recommended strategies were applied to this situation provides further clarity in understanding how the theories in general are applied, and how universities use them under these specific circumstances.