Reputation management for schools

Published: Tuesday, 15 May 2018

PLMR’s Sam Dalton talks about how schools can manage reputational impact when a crisis hits.

Summary

  • Schools need to build a positive reputation so they can remain strong if a crisis occurs. 
  • Schools should be fully prepared for a crisis, having set procedures in place, and ensuring staff know how to respond if an incident happens.
  • It must be the absolute priority to establish key facts before any crisis communications materials are put together.
  • Schools need to communicate effectively to all stakeholders, including parents, staff, and the media.
  • Once a crisis has passed, members of staff should remain prepared should the issue resurface in the media, and take active steps to rebuild the positive reputation of the school.

While the most important goal for schools is undoubtedly to foster the educational environment in which students can fulfil their potential, effective reputation management is intrinsically connected to this. Communicating well with stakeholders means schools can showcase their excellent learning opportunities to a wide audience, and support the recruitment of both staff and students so they can secure higher levels of funding, and achieve their core aims. With today’s educational environment less segmented into different types of school, e.g. grammar and comprehensive, schools need to compete with a wider variety of institutions similar to their own.

The move towards multi-academy trusts (MATs) also raises the importance of effective reputation management. In large groups of schools, with thousands of students and hundreds of teachers in attendance in every day, it is an unfortunate inevitability that issues will arise, which can quickly pose a serious challenge for the trust. Whether it be a student safeguarding issue, a teacher that has made a mistake, or a poor Ofsted rating, it is crucial to deal with these issues appropriately, to maintain the strongest possible reputation.

I have outlined five top tips below that we at PLMR would provide to our clients to manage these situations:

  • Build a positive reputation.
  • Have clear procedures in place.
  • Get the facts straight.
  • Communicate effectively with key stakeholders.
  • Post-crisis communications.

Build a positive reputation

If a school or trust has already established a strong reputation, then overcoming a crisis will be much easier. From positive stories about academic results and extra-curricular achievements to thought-leadership pieces on best practice, maintaining a steady stream of news stories raises awareness of the school’s great work, and provides a firm foundation to build from when tackling a reputational issue.

Be prepared and establish clear procedures

All schools and trusts should have a clear protocol in place for when a crisis arises. This ensures everyone knows what their role is and how they should respond, and puts the school in a strong position to act swiftly and resolve the issue. When it comes to a crisis communications plan, the following points should be in place:

  • First steps checklist – i.e. what are the initial actions that the organisation must take when something goes wrong.
  • Key stakeholder list - your key target audiences, for example: parents, teachers and other staff members, key politicians and other local influencers, and members of the wider public and media.
  • Spokespeople – the key people within your organisation or key person (for example the CEO of the academy trust or Headteacher of the school) who would represent the organisation during the crisis and keep people informed of what is going on.
  • Your crisis team and a list of contact information – for example: your CEO, senior leadership team, and operations team.
  • Possible risks – what could occur that would be a threat to your trust or school? For example: a negative Ofsted rating, a teacher making a mistake, or students’ safety being put at risk.
  • Key messages – what are you going to say: how you will be putting things right, what you intend to do moving forward, as well as more general messages about your trust or school.
  • Draft press statements and template letters for external and internal stakeholders.
  • Media call log to document calls and enquiries – this will ensure that all enquiries are dealt with.
  • A press and social media protocol sheet – including scripts for staff members about how to handle potentially aggressive media enquiries, and pass it on to the correct people, e.g. your senior leadership team.

Get the facts straight

As soon as a crisis hits, ensure you have all the relevant facts and information. It is vital that your public statement is accurate, and contains no factual flaws that might be exposed by journalists. Having the facts will not only ensure your communications are as well-informed as possible, but will help handle the crisis itself. Sometimes you won’t have the full facts, for instance during an investigation, and in these situations your public statement will inevitably be less detailed. That’s normal – here you can let people know that a final outcome is still be reached.

Communicate effectively with key stakeholders

It is crucial that all strands of your communication, whether to internal stakeholders such as parents and staff, or external stakeholders such as the media and wider public, are joined-up and work in harmony. This is true both in terms of the timing and content of communication. You don’t want parents or staff to find out about a crisis for the first time from a sensationalist newspaper article. You need to ensure they are well-informed and reassured from the start.

Each situation is different and requires careful judgement, but internal and external communication must always be considered within one unified strategy.

Post-crisis communications

After the crisis has died down, come together as a team, and reflect on what can be learnt from the situation. What went well and what didn’t go so well? Did you limit negative media coverage, and communicate effectively with parents and staff? Asking these questions will help you improve your crisis protocol.

In addition, you should remain prepared for the possibility of the story resurfacing later on. Have a reactive media statement ready, and think of ways to build the positive reputation of the school or trust to put it in an even stronger position should this happen.

PLMR case study: school within an academy trust requiring immediate communications support

Schools always have to bear in mind Ofsted inspections. They play a key role in shaping perceptions of a school’s quality of teaching and learning, and affect parents’ likelihood of sending their child to a school. One of the schools we work for had received a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating from Ofsted, and we needed to act fast to communicate this news to internal and external stakeholders in a way that focused on the positives of the report, and minimised any reputational damage done to the school and its trust.

PLMR crafted a narrative focused on the school’s progress and upward trajectory, highlighting the work its new Headteacher was doing to raise standards and enhance the life chances of students. This resulted in a broadly positive story which focused on the changes the Headteacher had made, and the positive impact this was already having. While the ‘Requires Improvement’ rating was still mentioned, this happened within the context of a story which was predominantly positive and optimistic.

At the same time, PLMR drafted a letter to parents of children at the school, informing them of the rating early on, while explaining the improvements being made by the Headteacher. Overall, our proactive communications strategy meant the school was on the front foot with regards to how the Ofsted report was perceived, and resulted in a much more positive and optimistic narrative than would have been the case without the careful planning and coordination that went into our communications.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Sam Dalton is an Account Executive at PLMR, a leading education communications agency, specialising in PR and media relations, reputation management, stakeholder engagement, public affairs and planning and digital marketing. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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