Summary: What image does your school present online and peer to peer? You can practice good “image grooming” with an appealing website, PR strategy, social media engagement, and student empowerment. Here’s how to ensure student applicants always see your most attractive angle.
A higher education institution must be built on a solid reputation. That’s important, not only for enrollment but for retention and alumni relations. A school’s reputation, likewise, isn’t just important in the eyes of enrollment candidates, but in the view of parents, counselors, mentors, and peers of those potential students.
Here, we’ll explore the steps that schools can take to influence a positive brand reputation. This isn’t a “one-time” project, but an ongoing strategy that benefits from laying out a thorough plan, and training staff and faculty to keep to the initiative. The PR game has changed in recent years because the arenas where your school’s reputation is discussed have changed to the online world, so we have to focus on digital brand management in the same media channels that students and their associates use.
The steps we will cover here:
- Brand Assessment: Survey your current standing and devise a plan to see what needs changing and how to change it
- Website Management: Your website is your digital front door to the world, and today’s students judge a business based on their website more than any previous generation
- PR Management: Make sure the good news is upfront, and have a plan to manage the bad news if it happens
- Social Media Investment: The most important media channels to reach prospective students
- Student Investment: Your students can promote good word of mouth, and act as ambassadors for your institution
Reputation management is more challenging for schools today. This is because their target audience, mostly Generation Z and Millennials, are far more media-savvy and averse to feeling “marketed to” than previous generations. A suspicious and cynical generation, you have to work hard to earn their trust and keep it. Do not underestimate this generation’s capacity for research; they were born with Google on tap and a phone in their hand!
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” — Winston Churchill
The above quote made decades before “social media” was ever heard of, expresses the volatility of public perception in our increasingly noisy media environment. No school is immune to negative press, not even the Ivy League. It’s wise to heed this rule because the wrong impression of your institute can get out of hand just that quickly!
Assessing Your School’s Brand Reputation
First off, you want to conduct thorough research into your school’s current public standing online. That breaks down into three components:
- Image: The first impression, gleaned from short-term interactions and overheard opinions
- Reputation: The long-term historical view of a school’s image over time
- Brand: How a school wants to be perceived by various stakeholders
Image is determined by phrases such as “I heard School X is …” or “School X strikes me as …” Schools can have a stereotyped image in the public mind. Among the negative images a school can have:
- Low retention: a “drop-out school” with low graduation rates
- Over-priced: Maybe good otherwise, but fees are high and financial support is flimsy
- Low value: A “party school” or “diploma mill”
- Outdated: Schools that do not modernize their practices, policies, or technology
- Corrupt: A school plagued by scandals and controversy
Most of the negative images that schools tend to have are based on having a poor perceived ROI. Students today pay attention to the bottom line like no generation before. They want to see low costs and great graduation rates with high career prospects to follow. This can be tough to address because statistics are openly accessible online.
Reputation has to do more with impressions passed down to the student from second-hand sources. A continuing education student picking out their academic career will be swayed by opinions from their parents, teachers, counselors, peers, mentors, and just about anybody in their social circle. They will also look up what your school’s alumni have to say about the experience. Students will also search for old news stories about a negative incident in the past, which can be very damaging.
Finally, your school’s brand is what your school has to say about itself. Here, too, schools can stumble by not keeping their marketing and message updated. You should be sure that your brand:
- Appeals to the modern generation and its values
- Is consistent and transparent
- Stays current with modern trends
- Expresses a personality and reflects the school’s identity
An easy mnemonic of branding is to remember the “four Ps”: “product (education), price (tuition), promotion (marketing), and place (your position of academic relevance).”
You have to keep your brand up to date, and then deliver on that brand’s promise. Students will pick up cues from your marketing in unexpected ways. They are looking ten to forty years into the future at their career prospects; you should be looking forward with them.
Pay Attention to What Students Say Online
What are students saying about your school online? Where do they go to read school reviews? Before you can develop a strategy to enhance your image and reputation, you need to know what’s out there. Search popular websites to see if there are glowing reviews or if you need to conduct damage control. Here are a few websites students tend to use:
- College Confidential
Now that we have the groundwork for your current reputation and the reputation you’d like to implement, we have four key fronts to manage reputation:
School Website Management
Students have come to expect a university to be one of the most tech-savvy institutions they will deal with. Technology has changed the career landscape, even if you don’t have a tech-focused career. Students today are thinking about things like:
Will my career become outdated?
- Will I be trained on the latest methods and applications in my field?
- Can the school handle remote learning or prepare me for remote work in my career?
- Is my STEM curriculum up to date with the latest research?
- Will future-looking companies hire me from this school?
A school with a poorly maintained website sends the message that your school is poorly managed, and doesn’t care about the digital generation. Here’s a quick checklist for a university website:
- Perform a full website audit
- Make sure the whole site is easy to navigate for both users and Google search crawlers
- Check your UX design and follow best practices
- Pay attention to your inbound marketing funnel, making it easy for users to engage with you
- Make “mobile-first” your website motto, prioritizing phone users
Your site’s information should present clear and concise copy that’s easily scanned, with helpful links to find more information. And of course, for reputation management, you should highlight successes and good press prominently. Have a blog or news feed that showcases your awards, local articles about your school, alumni testimonials, community activity and engagement, and good statistics about your academic record and student achievements.
Website maintenance and digital marketing are topics we cover in very much depth on our blog, so we need not dwell on them here.
Luckily, the rules for having an effective PR strategy haven’t changed as much as other aspects. Your local media, including newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, still matter as much as ever. Most of your PR work will happen on two fronts:
- Proactive: Reaching out to media outlets with every positive story you can find
- Reactive: Crisis management for critical events to manage the media response
When it comes to press relations, it’s good to keep in mind that you have some natural allies. No doubt, your local politicians, businesses, and institutions want your school to have the best reputation. The more students you attract, the better business is for everybody around. Your city and state want to take pride in your institution. For that matter, your local reporters at your town newspaper would rather be writing news about your school than, say, twiddling their thumbs.
Make a commitment to press releases and pitches to your local media outlets. Let no alumni success go unreported! Every new piece of research from your engineering department, every new avenue of financial support for students, every new faculty member coming on board, all of this should be pitched to the media. At least half of the reputation management game is “saturation.” Drown the media in good stories and then a bad story will barely have a chance to break.
Show prospective students the opportunities your school can give them by highlighting student achievements in media outlets, on your website, and through social media channels.
As for crisis management, you should have a media team on standby. Should a negative event come up, the worst thing you can do during that time is to be inactive. When you’re sure that a scandal story is going to break, make sure that you’re the one breaking it. Address the crisis, express regret that it happened, and make a statement of what you’re doing to resolve it. A news story about your school should never end with “the university could not be reached for comment.”
Social Media Engagement
In the eyes of generation Z, second in importance only to your school’s website is your school’s social media channels. Today’s student spends most of their day on social media, where again, their judgment of your school is likely based on a scrutinization of your social media presence. The important channels are currently:
These social media channels come and go with the wind, too. Google+, for instance, died in 2019. Keep up with the latest trends and you’ll always be the first source Generation Z hears for messages about your school.
On social media, you want a specialist team who is responsible for keeping a welcoming, upbeat presence that is aligned with current trends. Define your brand and mission, create a social media strategy, and release stories of your every success and the success of your students and alumni, and show off some school spirit.
Does every school social media channel have to sound alike? Certainly not! The best school social media accounts highlight an appealing aspect of the school, but they are all unique to that school’s brand identity. You can spotlight your science department’s cutting edge research, your accessible and friendly staff, your high-tech connected campus, your commitment to social causes, your emphasis on the environment, or whatever you can find to emphasize.
Don’t let your social media channels become a drone of dull marketing. Catch your audience’s attention by commenting on current events, participating in the latest social media challenges, and sharing high-quality photographs and authentic video. When you do, you’ll inspire them to join the conversation and share their perspective.
Involving the Students
Now, at last, we come to your students. Your students should feel at least a small investment in your school’s reputation. Nobody wants to say they go to a crummy school, right? Your top students are a resource for your best word of mouth recommendations. This resource can be tapped with an effective student ambassador program. Student ambassadors are viewed as a trusted resource by potential students.
Alongside this, you can implement a testimonial and review program. This can be as simple as developing a student feedback system that emails students at the end of the semester. If you don’t ask for reviews, you won’t get that many of them. The people most likely to leave a review are those with unfavorable things to say. Don’t leave your digital reputation in their hands. Instead, develop a review solicitation system to encourage more students to leave positive feedback.
As the reviews start to roll in, you can then cherry-picking the students with the best reviews and incorporate them into your marketing strategy. Amplify the good news by giving those students a platform through your website, social media channels, and email and print campaigns.
Glowing testimonials and reviews should be leveraged as much as possible. Beyond posting them on your website, incorporate them into your digital advertising. Run Facebook and Instagram advertising campaigns that feature student ambassador testimonials or share quotes from review websites. These messages can help persuade students who are on the fence that your school is the right place for them.
We covered a lot of ground in a short space here, so follow the links to other articles where we discuss some of this material in-depth. For that matter, we have a whole blog of higher ed marketing inspiration waiting for you to dive in!
As we follow the media landscape from day to day, we learn that reputation management isn’t always easy. One bad day or a bad quote can cause you to be “canceled,” while good news has to be hammered in until it sticks. This is not an easy game, and it takes a lot of work to stay on top of it. Just remember, this is just as hard for your competitors as it is for you! Stay in better standing than your immediate competition, and you’ll always have the high ground.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2017. It’s been completely revamped and updated to reflect new digital channels and strategies and to improve the accuracy of information.