Among my clients when I ran my New York-based PR firm was a Fortune 50 company whose business was misunderstood by politicians and the media, which often resulted in unwanted attention and bad publicity. One day the CEO of the company received an inquiry from a Fortune writer and her line of questioning made clear that she wasn’t honestly reporting a story but looking for facts that would validate a predetermined thesis. The narrative train had already left the station and it was barreling full speed at my client.

It was the recommendation of the company’s hotshot lawyers that they send a fire and brimstone letter to Fortune warning the publication of all the bad things that would happen to them if they published their story. I advised the company that Fortune, which in those days was a credible publication, could paper its walls with threatening letters from the best law firms in the country and that they typically emboldened reporters rather than discouraged them. A reporter who has never been threatened with a lawsuit likely never published very much worth reading.

The Fortune reporter was too vested in her story to set straight, but I recommended the client send her editor a non-threatening letter explaining the bias and misunderstandings reflected in her line of questioning and that journalistically her story would prove embarrassing to the publication. The executive I dealt with was a wicked smart woman who had the internal clout to make the final decision on the company’s media relations decisions. She heeded my counsel, and we worked together crafting a letter appealing to Fortune’s journalistic sensibilities and standards, with no mention of a lawsuit.

A few weeks later, the executive received an email from the Fortune editor advising her the publication was no longer pursuing its story.

How a company manages a crisis speaks volumes about its corporate integrity, and my client was confident that focusing on facts, rather than making threats, was the best line of defense. How Harvard University has managed the reputation crisis engulfing the institution and its president Claudine Gay reveals a lot about the institution and the person ultimately responsible for overseeing the process. That would be Penny Pritzker, the billionaire heiress to the Hyatt fortune who reportedly spearheaded Gay’s controversial appointment.

Pritzker’s suitability to lead Harvard is very much open to debate and would make a great business school study how appointing an unqualified or inappropriate person to a top position begets more unqualified persons down the line.

Double Whammy

Harvard in recent weeks was hit by a double whammy of crises, one that triggered the other. The initial crisis was Gay’s disastrous testimony before Congress where she couldn’t bring herself to say that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the university’s code of conduct. Gay’s testimony went viral, and much of America was aghast witnessing the person who was overseeing what was widely believed America’s premier institution of higher learning.

Left to her own devices, I suspect Gay would have been a disaster regardless, but The New York Times reported that Gay was coached by high priced crisis expert attorneys at the white-shoe law firm WilmerHale. Gay’s testimony debacle made her vulnerable, breathing new life into the plagiarism allegations swirling around Gay for years. Harvard’s response to those allegations was despicable and made a mockery of Gay’s professed free speech concerns.

Jonathan Swain/LinkedIn

In late October, a New York Post reporter named Isabel Vincent contacted Harvard saying she had identified more than two dozen instances in Gay’s scholarly works that “appeared to closely parallel words, phrases, or sentences in published works by other academics.” Vincent disclosed that she had received proof of the plagiarism anonymously but had independently verified the information. Vincent said Jonathan Swain, who she said was a former aide to Hillary Clinton and part of the Biden-Harris transition team, promised to get back to her in a few days.

Instead, the Post received a threatening 15-page letter from Thomas Clare, a founding attorney of Clare-Locke, who identified himself as defamation counsel for Harvard University and Gay. Harvard’s choice of law firms was deliberate; Thomas Clare and his spouse, Elizabeth “Libby” Locke, were co-counsels on the defamation lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems filed against Fox News, which the network settled for $787.5 million.

Fox is owned by News Corp, which also owns the Post and the Wall Street Journal. Alarmingly, Clare’s letter appears to have so frightened the Post that it never published its story. Given that Gay was reportedly instrumental in the firing of a renowned law school professor because students said they were “traumatized” by his representation of Harvey Weinstein, it’s noteworthy there’s been nary a protest about Harvard retaining Clare-Locke. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the firm also represented former NBC News pervert Matt Laurer and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska.

Former Aide to Hillary Clinton

That Harvard would choose someone from politics, a person with ties to Hillary Clinton no less, to manage its PR is a red flag. Political flacks aren’t trained in building and protecting corporate brands but rather spinning and deceiving reporters and managing through the prism of a 24-hour news cycle. It’s an issue I railed against when I worked in PR (see here and here) and the proliferation of political flacks running corporate communications departments was among the reasons I got out of the PR business.

A savvy corporate PR person strives to avoid being like the proverbial boy with his finger in the dyke. That means envisioning how a crisis might unfold so that a statement that might quell an issue one day won’t later prove an embarrassment as more facts unfold. Reputation management is a marathon, not a sprint.

It doesn’t appear that Harvard had all its ducks in order when it authorized Clare to send the Post his blistering letter saying allegations that Gay repeatedly engaged in plagiarism were defamatory. The Post has reported that Harvard cleared Gay of plagiarism before it even investigated whether her academic work was copied.

Harvard’s management perhaps thought it scored a major victory getting the Post to back off its story, but they were naïve believing they had made the plagiarism issue go away. Given that the Post admitted it was leaked the information, it was reasonable to assume that person(s) had an agenda and would pursue other outlets. Moreover, allegations of Gay’s plagiarism were already public record.

Christopher Ruffo, who describes himself as a writer, filmmaker, and activist, more than a year ago published this post on Substack alleging that Gay engaged in plagiarism. One might have expected Harvard to investigate Ruffo’s allegations, but apparently, they didn’t. Not surprisingly, the legacy media turned a blind eye about damning allegations relating to Harvard’s first Black president.

Plagiarism is rarely a one-off. It’s very common in journalism, and when a reporter is revealed to have engaged in one egregious instance of plagiarism, the ensuing investigation typically reveals many more instances.  It’s been revealed that after two professors questioned a data analysis Gay used in a 2001 Stanford paper that often resulted in “logical inconsistencies,” she refused to share her research with them. More plagiarism allegations seem to be popping up elsewhere.

Although Swain, the former Clinton aide, oversees Harvard’s media relations, it isn’t publicly known whether he made the decision to retain a defamation attorney to rough up the Post. Regardless, the person ultimately responsible for Harvard’s media relations mismanagement is Penny Pritzker, who leads the Harvard Corporation, a secretive board of 12 very wealthy individuals responsible for oversight of the university. According to the New York Times, Pritzker oversaw the search that led to Gay’s appointment.

Pritzker (r) CNBC video tweet

The media’s Penny thoughts

The media’s sanitized version of Pritzker is that she is a billionaire philanthropist, an heir of the Hyatt fortune, and an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential bid, which landed her the job as secretary of commerce in Obama’s second term. The Times reported that Pritzker reviewed Harvard’s statement defending Gay before it was issued, so it’s hardly reckless to speculate she was involved in the strategy.

What I’ve gleamed from published reports is that Pritzker is a Type A personality with a gift for numbers who lost both her parents when she was young; her father died of a heart attack and her mother possibly by suicide. Pritzker, 64, earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard and later received an MBA and law degree from Stanford. Pritzker was also an athlete, having participated in triathlons.

Among those who are unlikely to serve as Pritzker’s character references are her brothers Anthony and Jay Robert. Anthony and Jay Robert, who goes by the initials J.B. and is the governor of Illinois, joined their cousins in a lawsuit alleging that Penny and other family members overseeing the Hyatt and Marmon manufacturing empires engaged in self-dealing. The lawsuit resulted in a breakup of the Pritzker hotel and manufacturing conglomerates.

In These Times

As reported by In These Times a publication focused on “advancing democracy and economic justice,” Penny Pritzker and other family members were involved in a myriad of controversial business dealings, including union busting, conflicts of interest, and creative tax sheltering schemes. The publication charged the Pritzker family used philanthropy to divert attention from their alleged misdeeds.

“The Pritzkers, who have contributed large sums to education, medicine, architecture and the arts in their hometown of Chicago and elsewhere, gain protection from the fallout of their questionable business practices through their public image as philanthropists,” In These Times opined.

“A really sleazy operation”

Penny Pritzker was directly responsible for one family controversy, overseeing the failed Superior Bank in suburban Chicago, which ultimately cost the FDIC half a billion dollars. Superior was an early pioneer in mortgage lending to borrowers with subprime credit scores and then packaging the risky loans as investment grade securities.

Bert Ely, a respected bank consultant, called Superior Bank “a really sleazy operation.” Tim Anderson, a banking industry consultant, was quoted in 2013 saying, ​“Penny Pritzker has still not answered for her and her family’s role in the subprime mortgage meltdown of the world-wide economy.”

As best I can tell, Pritzker was never held accountable, which made her subsequent rise to a a presidential cabinet secretary and then chair of Harvard quite remarkable.  Pritzker until September was also chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but she resigned that position to serve as President Biden’s U.S. special representative for Ukraine’s economic recovery.

Tino Cuéllar, a former California Supreme Court Judge who served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, was named president of the Carnegie Endowment when Pritzker was chair. Cuéllar, who commands bipartisan respect and is mentioned as a worthy Supreme Court candidate, also serves on the board of the Harvard Corp.

The Harvard Crimson reported that the five-month search leading to Gay’s appointment was the fastest in the university’s history and officials claimed that more than 600 nominations were considered. It requires a giant leap of faith to believe the nominations received much consideration, and that all of them paled when measured against Gay’s. There has been much speculation that the search was rigged, and that it was preordained that a minority candidate would get chosen. It doesn’t appear that Gay’s appointment was subject to much due diligence.

Compounding the bad political optics were reports that Obama pushed Harvard to keep Gay in place even after her Congressional debacle.

Media reports rarely mention that Pritzker is Jewish, which is significant given her defense of Gay’s failure to combat Jew hatred on Harvard’s campus. It’s especially noteworthy given Pritzer’s family history.

In its June 2014 profile of Pritzker, Fortune reported that Pritzker’s great grandfather, Nicholas J. Pritzker, fled Kiev in the 1880s after his family was warned by Cossacks “that being both Jewish and politically active was not a recipe for a long life; he taught himself English by reading the newspapers he sold on Chicago streets and went on to launch his own law firm.” 

It’s surprising that someone with Pritzker’s family history would defend Gay’s blind eye to rabid Jew hatred on Harvard’s campus, particularly given the May 5, 2016 commentary Pritzker posted on Medium warning that “hate speech has a friend in silence.”

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