NEW YORK — Say you’re a rich parent caught in the college bribery scandal. You need a lawyer, of course. And your kid just might need their own public-relations expert.
“He’s been rejected at job after job,” Engelmayer says. “Because when you do a Google search on him, the first thing that comes up is that is his dad paid off somebody at the school.”
According to the investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, more than 700 people — including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — conspired to illegally secure a spot at one of America’s elite universities for one or more of their children. Payments ranged from $15,000 to an astounding $6.5 million.
Some of the students must have known exactly what their parents were doing, but prosecutors say some did not. If they did know their mothers or fathers broke the law, the children are complicit. If they didn’t, they must be brokenhearted. Either way, they still surely love their parents, who might be going to jail. And now, their lives are headline-inducing messes.
Wait, what’s that squeaky sound you hear? The world’s smallest violin playing for these privileged children, who probably deprived qualified applicants a spot at these universities.
But consider, for a moment, the possibility that some these kids are guilty only by association and should not pay for the sins of the parents. Time for damage control.
“What I’ve found is that as soon as you know you’re in trouble — even if you didn’t do anything wrong but it’s going to cause trouble — try to head it off at the pass,” Engelmayer says. “Try to get your point of view out there at the very beginning.”
Engelmayer, president of Herald PR, started his career almost 30 years ago working for a New York assemblyman and then large public-relations companies representing businesses and nonprofit groups. He was good with people and liked to schmooze, he says. Then three years ago, the 49-year-old started his own firm, doing conventional PR and crisis communications. His office on the West Side is small and unpretentious. A whiteboard filled with colorful notes covers one wall.
Classic public relations is proactive — getting a client’s name in newspapers and on television, helping them become the go-to expert everyone wants to interview. Crisis communication is very different: Sometimes you’re trying to keep a client out of the public eye or working with reporters to offer another narrative.
In fact, one of Engelmayer’s current clients is Harvey Weinstein, and he’s trying to make sure that media coverage about the disgraced movie producer doesn’t affect his chances for an unbiased jury pool.
So how did he become a fixer for those caught in the college bribery scheme?
Although he won’t disclose the names of his clients, Engelmayer says he was hired by a wealthy father whose son was accused in a hacking scandal. The kid was exonerated, with Engelmayer’s help, and that led to another client: A super-rich businessman who was accused, among other illegal activities, of bribing a university coach to get his son into an Ivy League school. Engelmayer was tasked with clearing the kid’s name. That, in turn, led to another student/client caught in the current bribery scandal.
“The main reason these negative stories hit, aside from the fact that it’s salacious and great clickbait, is because the person gets the first phone calls and they freeze,” he says. “The common attitude is, ‘If you ignore it, it will go away.’ ” But usually, the story doesn’t go away. It gets worse.
And so for people who have enough money, it’s time to find a good crisis manager, much like finding a good doctor: They diagnose a problem, consider treatment options, stay calm and positive.
Engelmayer sees his job as distancing the student from the alleged criminal activity of the parent.
His solution is online reputation management and search engine optimization, which is a fancy way of saying, make sure that anyone doing a search for the kid (say, a potential employer) will find a lot about his or her life, hobbies, charitable work and more before they discover the link to the college bribery scandal.
The online changes start with removing a child’s name from a parent’s Wikipedia page, or from a parent’s corporate biography, then cleaning up both the parent and student’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts. The prosecutors did not name any of the students involved in the bribery scandal, and some have different surnames from the parent charged, which makes the process a little easier.
Deleting everything online looks suspicious. Instead, the goal is to show the client has a real separate life.
Rich kids have a lot of hobbies and experiences to mine, drawing from a lifetime of doing all the great stuff wealthy parents think their children should do. By the time they’re 20 or 21, there’s much to talk about: They donated to a cancer charity, they ran a marathon, they scuba dive.
So Engelmayer finds the positive details in the students’ lives that can be pulled out and created as new websites with domain names. That way, the first entries that appear during an online search are these pretty pages full of photos and well-written material.
The idea here is to push the scandal further down in the online search. Most average prospective employers, frankly, don’t look past the first two, Engelmayer says. But if the students want to work on Wall Street or a prestigious law firm, they need to create a compelling online case for themselves. “If you’re looking for a job where your starting salary is half a million dollars and you can be making 10 million dollars in five years — which is the world a lot of these people have come from — the places they’re looking at are doing fine-tooth-comb searches,” says Engelmayer. So by the fourth or fifth page in an online search, there is a better sense of who the student is, not what the parent did.
It’s time-consuming work and doesn’t come cheap: $15,000 to $30,000 a month, depending how much content is being created by the writers Engelmayer hires. His clients are deeply involved, micromanaging the process, he says. One of the students he’s representing is “desperate” to show that his accomplishments are, in fact, his own.
There are, of course, some students Engelmayer can’t help. If they blog, give interviews or post something stupid, “it becomes harder and then that becomes counterproductive,” he says. “I would say to someone like that, ‘I love your money, but I can’t help you. Nothing I’m going to do is going to work. It will take at least two years before we see any traction.’ ”
Which brings up a delicate question: Should he help?
“I understand the impulse behind it,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” “I understand the kids’ and parents’ impulse to have a PR person fix this for them. But I think it’s only fixing the immediate problem, which is the bad PR they’re getting. The greater harm is that the young person — who’s been so overly managed, whose life path has been laid out for them by someone else — lacks agency in their own life.”
Lythcott-Haims, who worked as the freshman dean at Stanford University for a decade, says her first thoughts went to the kids whose parents secretly augmented their test scores. “Those kids just woke up to the news that their parents did not have enough confidence in them and lied and cheated for them,” she says. “These kids’ sense of self has just been shattered. But for the kids who were in any way complicit: Sorry, but there are consequences. It’s not about ‘You need a job.’ It’s about ‘You need to get your character and your ethical code in order.’ ”
Her solution? The students shouldn’t try to hide any of it. Instead, they should write (yes, in their own words) their thoughts about what happened — their regrets and apologies to the extent they had any knowledge of the deceit. ‘They, ultimately, have to do the work of rebuilding their character and their reputation.”
Engelmayer isn’t naive. He has put three kids through college and knows a bit about the admissions process. He believes most of the children caught up in this scandal must have known their parents had some hand in their success.
“There’s no way they didn’t know they had a little boost,” he says. Clearly, the students who pretended to play sports knew they were lying, and he believes most of the kids had a sense something was not quite by the book. “I don’t believe that the kids are that naive, that they don’t know. They might not know to the extent, they might not know a dollar amount, they might not know how the conversation went down. But they know it wasn’t just their good looks and brains.”
Rich kids have always had a leg up in so many ways, including getting into elite universities by virtue of big donations. Jared Kushner’s father famously donated $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before he was admitted, a not-so-surprising opportunity for the less-than-stellar student.
Dr. Dre just celebrated his daughter’s admission into the University of Southern California with this Instagram taunt: “My daughter got accepted into USC all on her own. No jail time!!!” Unmentioned: The hip-hop mogul (along with music partner Jimmy Iovine) gave $70 million to USC in 2013 for an arts, technology and business school.
The questionable but legal way of rigging the system has always been an open secret. “That’s the way I was brought up,” says Engelmayer. “All the kids whose parents I wanted to have were names on the buildings.”
And yet. Should a rich kid be punished for the ambitions of their parents?
Ultimately, Engelmayer says, he wants his clients to be judged on their own merits, “To allow them the chance to create their own life and make their own destiny.”
With a little assistance, of course.