Protect your reputation from being tarnished

12th June 2009 at 01:00

Of the many definitions of reputation, my favourite is "what you say, do and others think about you". Unfortunately, managing reputation - whether we are talking about colleges on a national scale or a single institution - is not straightforward, not least because various fictions about colleges are still held to be true by some.

One myth is that national and local reputations differ. A survey on behalf of the Association of Colleges asked 1,500 people if they thought their local college had a good reputation for the quality of courses and services it offers. An impressive 74 per cent said they did. When asked if colleges nationally had a good reputation for the same things, 80 per cent agreed.

That is not to deny what Helena Kennedy and Sir Andrew Foster both said at different times, that some "national opinion formers" continue to be "appallingly ignorant" about what colleges are and what they do; but this is not the same as having a poor national reputation.

Another misconception is that managing reputation is somehow divorced from the primary purpose of colleges: the teaching and support of students. Defending an institution's reputation against, say, a misinformed attack about the quality of teaching is a service to the alumni and current students. Gaining a qualification is, in part, about improving your own reputation - an indicator of your hard work and study. An attack on the quality of that qualification is an attack on your reputation.

The relationship between teaching and reputation is reciprocal. A recent study by the Lancashire Colleges Consortium and the Knowledge Partnership showed that students, parents and employers all ranked teaching as the most important factor in determining what they felt about a college. Colleges with strong reputations understand that excellent staff are their greatest asset.

A third common misconception is that positive media coverage is the secret to building a strong reputation. First, traditional media are in decline. Second, studies show that "business as usual" stories have little affect on reputation. Third, the factors that determine reputation nationally or locally are too various and complex to be dealt with solely through press releases.

A good illustration is the issue of "bogus colleges". Recent coverage of this poses a threat to the way the general public perceives legitimate institutions, as Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester College, rightly indicated in this newspaper (Letters, May 1). The solution to this problem lies in law and not communications, which is why the AoC and partners are seeking legal protection for the term "college".

Perhaps the most pernicious fallacy is the belief that reputation management is not a collective effort. The successes of Colleges Week and VQ Day demonstrate that the sector is more than the sum of its parts. The FE Reputation Strategy Group adopts this philosophy, and certainly the work of the AoC in promoting the social and economic contribution of colleges would be nothing without the support of its members.

Ben Verinder, Communications director, Association of Colleges.

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