“Can you get me in a national newspaper?” a college principal once asked me.
“What do you want to achieve by that?” I replied.
“I want to impress my friends,” she said.
I admired that response. It was funny, it was brutally honest, and it was precise.
It is the kind of precision that is often lacking in strategic planning in further education, particularly in relation to understanding relationships and reputations.
“Reputation is what men and women think of us, character is what God and angels know of us,” wrote the philosopher Thomas Paine.
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Reputation is indeed fractured between different (groups of) men and women.
It is a complex aggregation of perceptions that can be shared in the form of beliefs – which don’t even need to be true. “Never lose sight of the fact that in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins,” writes crisis management expert Steven Fink.
Who has the greatest influence?
To measure and manage reputation, we must first understand who has the greatest interest in and influence over our organisation – in other words: who matters most?
This is vital because measuring and managing perceptions costs money and time. We must be ruthless in prioritising who matters most, otherwise we risk spending that money and that time cultivating relationships with, and serving the priorities of, the wrong people.
This becomes even more important in the digital age, when Andy from Arbroath can wade into a row about education in Esher, and distant publics appear to be more influential over and interested in an organisation than they actually are.
Yet in the strategic plans of some colleges, college groups and training providers (and the consultation exercises that informed them) we see references to "our reputation" in which those presumed to have a stake in the organisation are lumped into convenient but meaningless groups or, even worse, one amorphous mass.
These plans have clearly not been informed by detailed stakeholder research or modelling.
The rights and wrongs of building a reputation
For a college, getting it wrong can lead to a faulty strategy or, further down the line, mission drift. In layman’s terms this means:
- Prioritising a regulator or government agency over the community a college or group serves to the extent that it poses an existential threat to its presence in that community.
- Concentrating on the needs of a small group of local employers to the exclusion of a wider sector, leading to a narrowing of chances and opportunities for students
- Failing to take account of the views of interested and powerful parties during periods of change or development, leading to reputational damage and, potentially, serious public difficulties.
Getting it right means:
- Using often meagre resources to maximum effect in developing sustainable relationships that benefit students and the place in which they live.
- Generating the evidence from external groups that staff want and need to support a change in direction.
- Improving the public value of an institution and with it, the common good.
Professor Anne Gregory and her colleague Paul Willis, director of the centre for public relations studies at Leeds Beckett University, write: “Questions such as ‘what’s our place in the world?’, ‘what do we stand for?’ ‘what will we do?’…are value laden and have communication at their heart since to be successful, in whatever terms the organisation classifies success, is dependent on gaining the consent and support of other people – or stakeholders – who will have to detect value in what the organisation stands for and does. To gain that consent will require relationship building and trust in the organisation, this latter being an essential element of organisational reputation.”
To succeed requires us to be crystal clear about where we need to start building those relationships.
Ben Verinder is managing director of research and communications consultancy Chalkstream