Much is written about reputation management and it could appear that there is a distinction between the reputation of a school to that of a business. To discover if there are actual differences or if schools just replaced the name business with school in the literature, I researched university and hospital reputation and reassured myself that reputation per se, is just that. Everything else is how an organisation defines its reputation, grows its reputation and manages its reputation.
By definition, fee-paying international schools are businesses and have a business structure, and increasingly we see schools that are operated by Groups and will therefore have an additional layer of corporate governance.
Other than that, the only distinction that I am able to discern is the reputation of individuals versus how individuals behave collectively. Organisations are a collection of individuals and in a school’s universe this can be anyone - ranging from a primary level student to the head teacher, and even extend to other users and suppliers connected with the school.
An example of how individuals can affect a brand’s reputation is in the world of celebrity. Many famous brands use celebrities for brand endorsement, but act quickly to withdraw their sponsorship if a celebrity attracts bad press coverage. Otherwise brands benefit hugely from their association with celebrities. The conclusion for me is therefore, any difference in how a school's reputation is managed hinges upon how it acts within its remit and how it is perceived by others based upon these actions and its interactions with the community.
International schools exist within a growing global education sector and also compete locally. They can be defined differently by language, curriculum, cohort, alumni, quality of teaching, success at examinations, fees, size, location, leadership, facilities etc. Items in this list will have special resonance for some consumers and not for others, so you can tell it’s beginning to get complicated!
Most schools market and showcase themselves online, so it would seem obvious to ask if an online reputation is different somehow to a local reputation, and if so, do they need to be managed differently? I would say not, as the difference appears to be scale over substance. However the channels for marketing are changing and social media is leading that change. While schools used to be able to carefully craft their message and then promote it using traditional advertising methods: billboards, magazines, flyers etc. - social media has introduced its own playbook. Traditional methods for gathering ROI now need to be supplemented with strategic media intelligence.
In recent years, reputation management has become synonymous with online reputation management (ORM) and when the term is used now; it’s mainly used to refer to managing search results for brand queries and negative reviews on social media that present a risk. These trends have, of course, made reputation management far more difficult for schools. The sheer number of voices involved, and the diffuse nature of comments, complaints and negative feedback make damage control much more difficult than it ever used to be.
Schools are increasingly recognising the importance of auditing reputation and stakeholder relations and gauging their views. A critical first step in social media reputation management is knowing what’s being said about your brand online. With the advent of integrated analytics and social listening it is now possible for schools to monitor and measure what customers are saying about them. In today’s connected world, power has largely been transferred to consumers when it comes to voicing a school’s marketing message. This means that monitoring and managing a schools online reputation is more important than ever.
Every day, parents make choices about which school to send their children, largely based on its reputation, and nothing is more valuable to a school than a positive and strong reputation. Analysis of small business search results (Marchex Seattle, WA – March 22 2011) showed that online consumer reviews and social network sites had a greater impact on the reputation of a small business than its own website. Findings also emphasised the growing importance of user generated content across social and local websites in driving revenue.
Commercial consumers driven to purchase products by influencers are not that different to parents driven to a decision to choose a school – stories in the press, the neighbour’s views, the verdict of another parent, the opinion of a relocation agent, word of mouth all impact on decision-making. However, this intangible we call reputation plays a large part too.
The reputation of a school is not the result of what a school says about itself; it’s what others say about them, which means that it can’t be controlled simply by producing marketing or promotional materials. It is the opinion of those on the outside looking in and, most importantly, those who have first-hand experience as parents, students or members of staff. ORM isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a very real and necessary part of protecting your brand’s reputation.
If you’re going to be investing time and money into establishing and growing your influence online, identify the channels by which your segmented stakeholders gather information about your school, and communicate their opinions. If, as a school you are struggling to work out which topics are most important to address in the increasingly complex web of stakeholder relations and their expectations insert yourself into the marketing channels where the parents of future students are searching for their next school. Look for channels that also facilitates communication and remember, local + social = the future of promotion.