Henry Ford once said that ‘You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do’. This retrospective view of reputation is apparent in higher education, with many universities having a rich history dating back hundreds of years that shapes how a large proportion of people think of them.  However, there is much that can be done to influence perceptions of your institution.

The World 100 Reputation Network was founded on this principle – to help the world’s best universities improve and manage their reputations. As a result, we’ve accumulated years of knowledge on the key ways to do so and, although we can’t share them all, we’ve narrowed it down to five key areas that can help you see the biggest impact.

Stakeholder Engagement

Knowing who your stakeholders are is one of the biggest steps in managing your university’s reputation. Why? To put it simply, reputation is what people think about us. Stakeholders can be your advocates – or detractors-  in the wider community and, more often than not, are the people you need to engage with successfully to achieve your goals.

On a practical note, mapping your stakeholders impacts all elements of your reputation strategy. Once you’ve identified the different groups, you can develop specific messages and information and the best method of engaging with them. Not all stakeholder groups will need to receive all information; stakeholder management is all about prioritisation and tailoring your communications.

Research Communications

Research is vital to university reputation. Why? Because research is tangible evidence of how your institution is impacting communities and the world around it. The research being delivered by your academic faculty, from medical sciences to languages, is bringing about change. A key communications challenge is to develop a focus on promoting research that helps your university to stand out: prioritising key research areas, or ‘beacons’, showcasing a smaller number of specialisms and really defining your university as a leader in that field.

5 Ways to Manage your University Reputation: Research Communications

This approach provides the opportunity to create a more strategic approach to university research communications. Gone are the days of everything being led by the press release; now a research communications plan needs to consider how research outputs can be customised and developed for different platforms and audiences. Can it be visualised? Graphically or with video? Is it suitable for broadcast media and if so which type? TV? Radio? Podcasts? Is the piece relevant for global audiences or does it have more impact on a regional level?

In short, research communications need to be planned strategically to not only enhance the dissemination of knowledge but to help your university to stand out.

Brand Campaigns

Brand campaigns are more than a logo revamp or a catchy tagline. They convey who your institution is, from its visual identity to the values and goals you have as an organisation, and can create an emotional connection with audiences in order to influence behaviour. They should focus on areas of strategic priority, whether it is boosting student recruitment, establishing their research beacons, or promoting internationalisation strategies. Either way, brand campaigns are a perfect vehicle to deliver your university identity and institutional strategy.

A great example is University of Newcastle in Australia which delivers brand campaigns supporting its ambitions as a leader in regional and civic engagement. Their campaigns take key pieces of research centred around issues important to the community around them, such as indigenous languages and work on rugby-related concussions. They developed an ecosystem that turned the research into story-led content that could be shared in a range of ways but ultimately put the audience first to help them feel connected to the university. You can read more about University of Newcastle’s campaign here.

Crisis Communications

Universities play an increasingly visible role in wider society, which often means attracting criticism, sometimes justifiably. However, there are critics willing to pour fuel on a fire taking something from a small issue to a full-on crisis if handled poorly. And while there is a very real possibility that a crisis may result in a temporary negative impact on reputation, the way that an institution deals with it can go a long way to restoring more favourable opinions.

5 Ways to Manage your University Reputation: Crisis Communications

Effective handling of any sort of crisis will always involve significant communications both externally and internally. There is a certain amount of planning that should always be done to put your university in the best place to manage a crisis. That doesn’t mean trying to predict every element of every potential crisis you can think of, but should involve having processes in place, identifying the responsibilities of different teams and understanding the stakeholder groups you may need to communicate with.

It is also important to remember that although communications teams may be at the heart of crisis management, they usually do not ‘own’ the crisis – the solutions required will sit with decisions made by other colleagues. But the effective management of all crises requires excellent communications, and protecting reputation can be as important as brand building.

Rankings strategies

University rankings have developed a key role in the sector; but what is their relationship with reputation?  How is it measured? What is the influence of different methodologies?

There is no doubt that many audiences now use rankings as a proxy for reputation. Prospective students may look at rankings as an indicator of quality when thinking about their university selection. Some countries use rankings within their government’s education policies.

So universities need to think strategically about how they engage with rankings, and how they can use the wealth of data collected by the rankings organisations to inform their thinking about reputation.

The traditional rankings often see the same elite universities taking the top places time and time again, and moving your position can be challenging in a competitive global environment. But new initiatives such as the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking are now allowing a set of younger and more globally diverse institutions to have a share of the spotlight.

5 Ways to Manage your University Reputation: Rankings Strategies

It won’t have escaped anybody’s notice that sustainability and impact have climbed up practically every agenda in recent times. The Impact Ranking captures universities’ contribution to society based on their success in contributing towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And that impact can play a major role in shaping reputation with key audiences.

The areas of reputation management discussed above are all critical in their own right, but they work most effectively when delivered strategically. For example, few of the elements discussed here work effectively without knowing how to tailor the information to different stakeholder groups. Neither would a significant ranking improvement happen without strong brand recognition or world changing research or if a poorly managed crisis had left your institution tarnished.

You can learn more about these aspects, and more, at our Reputation Academy. An intensive, hands-on training programme, it is aimed at practitioners in global university who want to develop an holistic view of reputation.  The training is provided by experts in higher education and reputation management, many of whom lead teams in top institutions. This allows delegates the chance to learn from those with first-hand experience in managing reputation, offering deeper insights and examples of real-world situations where they’ve put the theory into practice.

Our next face-to-face Reputation Academy runs from 22-25 May, hosted by RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences with a study tour to University College Dublin on the 26 May. Book your place here and get a 10% discount when you book two places together. Members of The World 100 Reputation Network receive exclusive discounted rates.