Court filings detailing previously unknown aspects of Harvard’s secretive admissions process will likely do little to damage the University’s image, public relations experts say.
Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group suing the University over alleged bias against Asian-American applicants, both filed several hundred pages of documents earlier this month as part of the lawsuit. The documents reveal Harvard assigns numerical ratings to College hopefuls in a variety of categories—and that, while Asian-American applicants tend to garner higher academic and extracurricular scores than their peers, their personal ratings lag behind those of other racial groups.
This new knowledge has prompted a slew of anti-Harvard opinion pieces, with some authors claiming the University harbors anti-Asian American prejudice, and still others criticizing different details, like the University’s preference for legacies, that have come to light in the documents.
But public relations experts say these critical opinion pieces do not mean Harvard has lost the public relations battle.
“In general, it will take quite a bit to damage the ‘Harvard brand,’” said Maggy Ralbovsky, executive vice president and managing director of Dick Jones, a firm that specializes in education public relations, calling Harvard’s brand the “gold standard.”
Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR, agreed.
“The Harvard brand is strong and widely trusted,” he wrote in an email. “The admissions debate is, I believe, more a matter for the courts than the targeted stakeholders who represent more of an elite audience.”
Another factor in Harvard’s favor, according to Ralbovsky, is that the University has a “track record” of caring about its students that could outweigh the negative press the University attracts from the case. History, she said, is on Harvard’s side.
And, even if the University attracts some negative press from the admissions lawsuit, there can be more important factors at play, according to the experts.
Sometimes, even if a group takes a small public relations hit, it is still in its best interests to divulge information that could bolster its chances of a legal victory, Karen Schwartzman, founder of the Boston-based P.R. firm Polaris, said.
“Sometimes the reputation issue get caught up in the legal defense,” she said. “In order to put forth the legal defense, sometimes an organization does by necessity damage to its reputation because it must divulge to the court information that makes the strongest case.”
Still, despite experts’ optimism that Harvard will overcome the public relations headache, Ralbovsky said it may be too soon to determine definitively how the lawsuit will affect the University’s image.
“Time will tell how it plays out,” she said.
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.