Nothing tests a school’s character more than a sustained attack on its reputation.
Managing reputation risk deserves an important position on your school’s governance agenda, but even more than that it requires strong leadership and planning before it happens. As a school leader, it is your job to be prepared.
First, it is important to understand the nature of reputation risk. They are often unusual, unnatural, unforgiving and, at times, unknown. Often the reputation risk is masked by a crisis or issue that is slowly emerging ... or perhaps thrust upon you in the space of one phone call. The safety and wellbeing of your students and staff, financial problems, industrial relations issues, security breaches, criminal acts by staff and, naturally, unhappy, distressed and often unreasonable parents are just some of the events in the life of your school that can mask the biggest long-term risk to the ongoing viability of your school … Your reputation.
Of course, you need to have sound responses to these operational issues as they emerge, however it is very easy to put reputational risk to the side – just for a while – to deal with the more pressing issues on your plate. This is a mistake made by many. While it may not seem it, it’s the equivalent of winning the battle but losing the war.
As consultants, we often find ourselves echoing the words of our colleague John Le Cras, and asking if a message or course of action is intended to satisfy a Court of Law, or the Court of Public Opinion. One is not more important than the other.
As John points out in his book, Idiosyncrasy, “In the court of public opinion, individuals, companies and organisations of any type are judged guilty or innocent based on the sometimes shallowest of perception. That's because we human beings are incredibly judgemental. Think about it. We constantly make judgements about people we’ve never met. Politicians, corporate leaders, sports stars, bosses – pretty much anyone – are constantly judged based on the thinnest of pieces of information. How they look, how they speak, what somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody heard from the guy who lives down the street who went to school with him or her 25 years ago.”
The Court of Public Opinion is a terrifying place and that’s why you need a plan.
Here’s an outline to help start your own plan.
- Start at the top. The planning process to handle reputation risk must start at the top. You, as school Head, and your Board, must endorse and likely lead the planning process.
- Embed the plan. From the very beginning your plan should be considered part of your school’s policy. Accountability for the upkeep and delivery of the plan needs to be embedded into job descriptions.
- Keep it simple. When the reputation risk is masked by the very real and urgent events happening around you, you don’t have time to decipher long instructions. The plan needs to be simple and easy to use for everyone. Remember that crises that cause reputation risk don’t respect the time of day or consider if it is school holidays. By definition there are more hours in a year when your school is ‘closed’ rather than when it is ‘open’.
- Hold people accountable. Your school executive must be given time and authority to develop, know and understand your plans to manage reputation risk. Consider having your plan audited and even stress-tested by knowledgeable external consultants who are familiar with the potentially chaotic nature of managing reputation.
- Put it in the budget. If your plan for managing reputation risk is going to last, it needs a budget. It is probable that it won’t be a budget line of its own, but it needs to be specifically accounted for and therefore have expectations for delivery. Regardless of which department you determine the responsibility ultimately lies with, the budget allocation needs to be reviewed annually.
- Make it applicable. Your plan to manage reputation risk needs to be as relevant to your Early Learning Centre as it is to your Senior School. Everybody in your school is responsible for managing reputation risk every day, in every thing they do.
- Communicate it. Your plan is useless if the people who need it at a critical time don’t know it exists, if they don’t know where to find it, or if they know where to find it but it’s protected behind a password. Don’t fall over at the last hurdle. Make sure everyone on your team knows where it is and how to access it. There is something very tangible and comforting about a hardcopy on file on the bookshelf that can be accessed in seconds.
- Apply it to everybody. Many schools use outsourced services for property management, gardening, clinics and more. The fact that these people are technically not your staff does not excuse them from being part of and expected to uphold and deliver on your reputation risk management plan. To the outside world, media and parents, at a critical moment in time they represent your school.
- Know that you can communicate. Make sure that everyone on your team knows critical contact information for all key staff. This includes numbers for their mobile phone, office phone, home phone and email. Then physically check that they are all stored in their mobile phone and also provide a printed credit card-sized contact list for storing in a purse or wallet.
- Learn from it. After any major event or crisis conduct a post-incident review. Of course it is expected that your review will cover the key learnings from the incident itself, but ensure that you include a review of how your reputation risk management plan performed under stress. Identify areas that can be improved and assign them to a specific staff member, then hold them accountable to action the improvements. Now plan for your reputation recovery.
Here are some crisis management resources you may find useful:
- More blogs on crisis management which might be of interest to you
- To learn more about managing your next crisis effectively, download our free checklist:
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John Le Cras, Idiosyncrasy, 2014, introduction.
This blog was written by Brad Entwistle
Brad Entwistle is founder and Managing Director of imageseven. For more than 25 years he has led the imageseven team on a crusade to lift schools’ brands and reveal the true value they deliver to students and their families. When he is not working with schools on their marketing strategy, Brad sits on the boards of two national not-for-profits and enjoys looking at antique maps.