Posted - February 2016

Managing Reputation in International Schools: Sorting out the Shadows from the Trees

by Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation Management)CIS Affiliated Consultant

Dr Stephen Holmes is a member of the CIS Affiliated Consultant Network. Stephen is co-founder and managing partner of The Knowledge Partnership (, a global marketing, strategy, and reputation research consultancy for schools and universities established in 2003.

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and servicing international school clients spanning every continent of the world, Stephen is the only full-time practising consultant in the world with a PhD in the field of school marketing and reputation management. Stephen has been consulting with schools globally since the mid 1990s and has an unmatched client list in breadth and depth. He is also the author of a specialist book on marketing for schools

Nothing is more valuable to a school than a positive and strong reputation. Reputation is an exciting concept for senior managers in schools to more formally consider in that it is viewed positively within the education community, relative to concepts such as ‘branding’, ‘customer satisfaction’ and even ‘marketing’ (expensive, commercial, and superficial).

The power of reputation

Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.’

In 2016, can any international school really afford not to know the trees from the shadows?

Parents make choices on which school to send their children, largely based on its reputation – stories in the press, the neighbour’s views, the verdict of another parent, the opinion of a relocation agent, a glimpse of unruly students at a bus stop – what’s typically called ‘word of mouth.’ Parents may supplement this word of mouth with more factual metrics – like league tables, costs, distance to travel, staff profiles, academic success – but this intangible we call reputation will certainly play a part in their choice.

What is Reputation?

A ‘corporate’ reputation describes the rational, emotional and moral attachments that interest holders (people such as staff, parents, students, and the general public) form toward a school. Reputation therefore reconciles the many images people have of a school- it is in essence the net image.

How is it created and maintained? Good or bad, the reputation of a school is determined as a result of accumulated activities or actual substance. It’s the result of what we do, which means that evidence of credentials is vitally important to managing the reputation of your school. It’s not the result of rhetoric, of what we say, which means that it can’t be controlled simply by producing marketing or promotional materials.

Reputation isn’t what we say about ourselves; it’s what others say about us – those on the outside looking in and, most importantly, those who have first-hand experience as parents, students or members of staff.

Building Reputation

Reputation is often discussed in schools but rarely defined. Reputation can be visualised as three interlocking circles that can be drawn as a Venn Diagram. The first circle represents ‘Credentials’ – what a  school can attest to or prove as facts of attainment or value. The second circle represents ‘Perception’ – what outside interests like the lady next door, the local business community, the specialist educational journalist, say about you. The third circle ‘Desired’ refers to what the school has articulated as an ambitious and engaging future - the veritable ‘light on the hill’.

Like a Venn Diagram, the three circles should overlap. The more the three circles overlap the more alignment there is in the school’s reputation between its components – and the more robust (compelling and cogent) its reputation will be.

Protecting and enhancing reputation

There is increasing recognition of the importance of auditing reputation and stakeholder relations and gauging their views.

There is also evidence of a greater focus in schools on the flip side to reputation, namely, self-definition. Self-definition is to do with clarifying vision and identity, what sort of school you want to define yourself as and the journey of change and renewal you plan to take. Self-definition is increasingly becoming the subject of more systematic processes in schools. When members of a school’s management and Board are themselves not clear about the vision, values and measures of success for the school, they can hardly be surprised if the outside world has a foggy view of the school as well. A good reputation depends significantly on positive and clear self-definition.

There is also a growing emphasis on internal communications in managing reputation in schools, but much still remains to be done in this area. If schools want to be seen positively, one of the first things they need to ensure is that their staff are professionally well developed and engaged.

It’s still the case, however, that most school leaders only really focus on reputation management when there’s a crisis. Some schools have contracted public relations support at such times in an attempt to control the damage. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t address long-term reputation management. Good reputation is the result of the strategic and proactive management of the perception of interest holders: students, parents, the school community, wider community and other public associations. It shouldn’t be confused with public relations, which offer a tactical and reactive form of management.

If a comprehensive and accurate audit of stakeholders is a first step, an important second step is to accept that it’s highly unlikely that there will ever be only one perception of your school. The reality is that multiple perceptions or reputations can and do exist for virtually every school.

Some important starting considerations are:

  • Define and segment your stakeholders (in some workable way)
  • Define the reputation you want
  • 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

Any such evaluation should look at both the internal and external picture.

Evaluating and benchmarking reputation: ‘The Reputation Assessor’

Most readers will probably not take exception to the claimed importance of reputation in this article. However they may also respond by saying that, given the diversity and complexity of interest holders, reputation is a difficult concept to measure and build.

Schools- their Boards, management, teachers and support staff- more than ever need a comprehensive but practical research process to build their reputation. Schools need to be able to apply first hand evidence about reputation to improve internally, and use that evidence to communicate externally more effectively about the school to its publics.

With this mind, The Knowledge Partnership have developed through extensive R and D  a comprehensive reputation evaluation and benchmarking process known as The Reputation Assessor specifically designed for international schools.

Contact Dr Stephen Holmes at for further details.

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