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School reputation—How to endure and build in unprecedented times
Stephen Holmes Affiliated Consultant

 

By Stephen Holmes, CIS Affiliated Consultant in school marketing and reputation

 

 

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few weeks processing what this new reality means and considering what lies ahead for schools and I have four initial conclusions:

  1. Actions and strategies grounded in robust evidence will be paramount for schools in what will be a more competitive, discerning and scrutinized operating context than ever before.
     
  2. Schools will need to balance and confront the short-term crisis we now experience with long-term implications—essentially, how to develop and build on critical strengths and address and defend critical weaknesses. 
     
  3. Performance monitoring by school management and boards become key data to be referenced in decisions and resource allocation.
     
  4. Parent choice (recruitment and retention) in schools will skew even more toward trust and confidence factors. Parents will want claims about your schools supplemented with more factual evidence and metrics (not generic).

The cumulative result will make the intangible we call reputation rise to the top of the list for schools. The point about reputation is that it is shaped by what others say about us (reality, experience and perception), not what we say about ourselves (marketing or advertising). As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Amidst and beyond the Coronavirus pandemic, can any international school afford not to know the trees from the shadows?

Speech bubbles

All those reading this in an international school will perhaps better know of reputation in a less formal and non-strategic way —word of mouth. In spite of our many years of research with schools internationally to conclude that nothing is more valuable to a school than a clear, positive and provable reputation, it is remarkably rare to find a school that is actively working on shaping a predetermined reputation in a professional and focused manner.

Reputation is a manageable variable for schools– it is fully in your hands to define, build and monitor. Let’s take a white knuckle look at how this can be pragmatically done at this crucial time.

What is a robust process for reputation management?

Some important starting considerations are:

  • Define and segment your stakeholders (in some workable way)
  • Define the reputation you want (be ambitious)
  • Define the key measures (drivers) of reputation for each stakeholder audience
  • Identify the channels by which your segmented stakeholders gather information about your school, and communicate their opinions about the school.
     

How to stock-take a schools reputation?

Schools, more than ever, need a comprehensive but practical process to evaluate reputation. Only then can a plan be drawn to shape and manage reputation. This would see a school measure its ‘goodwill’ through perceptions from:

  • Staff
  • Administration/Board 
  • Parents
  • Recent Alumni

I suggest starting with a measurement of staff perception of your reputation—parents and students will likely have more than enough on their plate at present! They can be assessed a little further downstream to compare and contrast with staff findings. After all, schools need to apply first-hand evidence about reputation to improve internally and use that evidence to communicate externally effectively and accurately to parents and students. Is there a consistent picture of the school across various audiences? Where are the gaps and variations in perceptions of your reputation within and across groups and why?
 

What aspects of reputation to evaluate?

From experience and applying our tool ‘The Reputation Assessor’ in schools, I suggest eight drivers or components of reputation be measured;

  1. Positioning or Identity of the School (what do people most say about you?)
  2. Performance of the School (how much ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ evidence do you have to verify your claims?)
  3. A School with a Difference (valued difference flagships or specialisations that others can’t replicate)
  4. Demand for the School (students, parents and staff – what suggests you might be desirable?)
  5. Community Relations and Engagement (evidence of influential partners, alliances)
  6. Quality of the ‘product’ (entry standards, student/graduate success, university/workplace success)
  7. Affinity and Recommendation (proof of word of mouth)
  8. A Focus on Staff at the School (evidence of staff as advocates)

 

A reputation road map for action

If a comprehensive ‘audit’ of stakeholders is a first step in reputation management, the second step is to implement findings. An organising framework to deliver a compelling and cogent reputation is:

  1. Build credentials—what we do and will do exceptionally well—what we most want to be known for.
  2. Communicate credentials (actual and anticipated)—emphasise what is most important to each defined audience and systematically connect through various modes.
  3. Future oriented—sense that we are moving ahead to a defined place. We see a light on the hill and we are heading there (almost ruthlessly!) with creative ideas and scenarios to build an even better reputation for our school.

 


Dr Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation) is a CIS Affiliated Consultant Network and the Founder and Principal of The 5Rs Partnership (www.5rspartnership.com), in Singapore. The 5Rs Partnership is a global consultancy specifically for schools and universities in strategy, marketing, and reputation, established in 2004. Contact Stephen s.holmes@5rspartnership.com for further details and resources on school reputation, including a free report on word of mouth.