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APRIL 23, 2020 //     

Why Higher Education Needs to Consider Brand Reputation

By: Paul Breton and Lydia Wilbanks

Campuses have shut down. Classroom instruction is completely online for the foreseeable future. Sporting, recruiting and graduation events have been cancelled or postponed. And the lawsuits over tuition and fees have begun.

It’s a make-or-break moment for higher education. In the coming months, university presidents, college deans, development officers and administrators will need to make complex and potentially unpopular decisions that can affect their long-term brand reputations. That’s why now is the optimal time to pivot their communications strategies and engage stakeholders differently.

Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and institutional donors each have myriad questions that need to be carefully messaged and addressed, not least of which include:

  • How and when will campuses reopen and make it actually safe to return?
  • How will online vs. on-campus tuition and fee decisions be managed?
  • How will out-of-state and international student admissions and enrollment be impacted if prospective students are unable to travel and take campus tours?
  • How will virtual, online stewardship keep alumni and donors engaged and connected – and for how long?
  • Are traditional methods of marketing outreach still effective?

Institutions that take decisive action to navigate these concerns creatively, empathetically and transparently will emerge stronger. They will build credibility and goodwill, especially when unpopular decisions become necessary. Schools that hesitate or underestimate the importance of their communications will face a long, uphill road to reputational and financial recovery.  

Here are four important communications initiatives school officials should focus on now to engage students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and institutional donors to shore up their long-term brand reputations:

Double down on digital

With in-person events and activities no longer viable options, colleges and universities need to shift resources and maximize the full range of digital capabilities to stay connected to their audiences online. Effective use of virtual events, online campus experiences, emotionally engaging videos, email newsletters, search engine marketing, social media influencer engagement and online conversation mining will give university communities the ability to remain visible and relevant during this prolonged time of social distancing.

Keep employees engaged

Now that everyone is working remotely, it’s even more imperative for school officials to increase connections with faculty and staff who are on the front lines with students, parents, donors and other stakeholders. While broad, one-way, top-down updates are customary, schools that rely on these types of communications exclusively will miss out on opportunities for valuable community temperature checks. Instead, communicators need to embrace virtual townhalls, online Q&As, department-wide video conferences, real-time employee surveys and other forms of remote social engagement.

Narrative matters

During times of high anxiety, people want reassurance and empathy from their leaders. They accept that decisions are being made in real time with incomplete and ever-changing information. While stakeholders don’t expect perfection, they do feel entitled to explanations of how and why important decisions are made and what they mean for the future. And they expect sincere contrition and quick corrections when leaders make the wrong call. 

Now more than usual, it’s important to consider how difficult messages are delivered and how they support an overarching brand narrative. Do stakeholders have a reason to trust and believe? Are they inspired? Can they see themselves as valued contributors to how the story gets written – or are they merely pawns in a game over which they have no meaningful control?

Tell stories that inspire

University marketers and fundraisers already appreciate the power of emotional stories about how higher education transforms lives and how researchers make new discoveries. Now is the time to delve even deeper and mine for inspiring stories that showcase the ingenuity and resilience of students, faculty, alumni and staff. 

How did professors come up with innovative ways to engage their students online? Which staff members truly went above and beyond the call of duty? How did the school community rally together to support each other or the community at large? How have alumni stepped up to hire students, establish internships and give back in new and inventive ways? 

These types of stories yearn to be discovered and disseminated.

While higher education faces an uncertain future, communications decisions that institutions make now will have brand reputation implications that endure long after students return and campuses once again safely open their doors.

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Paul Breton is an executive vice president in the Corporate + Public Affairs practice. He counsels executives to communicate effectively and tell memorable stories that result in positive earned media coverage, stronger brand reputation, greater stakeholder engagement and more revenue. He has 20+ years of PR and marketing communications experience and specializes in executive thought leadership, brand storytelling, crisis and issues management, internal communications and employee engagement. His industry experience spans education, technology, financial and professional services, entertainment and healthcare.

Lydia Wilbanks brings more than three decades of consumer and corporate communications experience to Allison+Partners. She specializes in target market analysis, strategic planning and thought leadership. After owning her own award-winning agency, she now focuses on communication counsel and market development for Southeast based organizations.

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