Put your best side on show

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Marketing folk are quick to rubbish the adage usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." In fact, in the universe of the entrepreneur the phrase "the mousetrap myth" is itself a cliche.

A moment's thought confirms this. Village inns shut for want of customers, do they not? ("You cried when we closed, but I never saw you in here.") Good books don't get published, and brilliant musicians busk on the Tube.

This applies to schools as much as to pubs, and the reason - and the remedy - is to do with how the places are perceived.

In Birmingham, for example, when a number of small inner-city secondaries closed for want of pupils, heads believed some parents chose more remote schools because they had to go on the bus. Having your kids stand at the bus-stop in uniform seemed more posh somehow.

Heads and governors should never assume that there is a simple correlation between the quality of what they have to offer and their reputation.

Unless you're canny with your PFI contract, it is rarely possible to move a school to the end of a bus route. But you can make the most of the good things you already have. For advice on this, I enlisted the help of PR expert Richenda Wood, head of the educational PR firm Livewire (www.livewirepr.com). She has come up with five tips for schools that want to preserve and improve their image: 1. Know your press. A good relationship with local journalists is a must.

2. Learn to write good press releases. Journalists will be more likely to cover your story.

3. Train your spokespersons effectively. Designate people who are articulate and confident speakers. In a crisis, they will be the voice of your school.

4. Develop a crisis management strategy. Plan for the unexpected, and even the unthinkable. Know what to say and when to say it.

5. Be proactive. Normal, everyday stories play an important part in making a good school great, and a positive reputation comes from celebrating your successes.

I will add one more, which is really an extension of Richenda's third point. You wouldn't believe the effect on an enquirer when your phone is answered by a real person with a warm and helpful attitude. Costly, but a wise investment.

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