Universities around the world are increasingly recognising the importance of their reputation management in achieving strategic goals. As a result, more communications and external relations professionals are joining senior university leadership teams.

Our recent webinar explored this topic by looking at the experience of three university communications professionals: Andrea Farquhar, Assistant Vice-President Communications and Public Affairs at McMaster University, Alan Ferns, Consultant & Formerly Associate Vice-President for External Relations and Reputation at The University of Manchester and Tania Rhodes-Taylor, CEO, Otus Advisory International Higher Education Consultancy and Coaching Practice and prior to that Vice Principal External Relations at The University of Sydney.

The discussion began by exploring how each of the speakers achieved their seat at the top table. All three experiences were quite different, but there was consensus around how to stay at the table and how to develop the most effective ways of ensuring that reputation becomes key to university strategy. We’ve collated some of the key themes from the discussion below:

1. Know your own value and know your university

Whilst the path to the table was varied for all our speakers, all three highlighted the importance of making yourself indispensable to the senior leadership group and bringing skills and experience to the table that others cannot. This may or may not get you the invitation to the meetings but it will almost certainly keep you at them.

For example, Andrea mentioned her longevity in her senior leadership team (SLT) position; over the years the SLT had seen many changes but having been a constant presence, she was key to institutional memory, and could advise on previous action that had worked – or not.

Having a broad knowledge of the university and its many constituent parts was another key advantage. Communications leaders have tended to work right across the institutions whilst many other senior colleagues have often remained in particular silos. ‘To do what we do well you need to have knowledge in the round that they [academic] can’t have. You’ve got to understand what the university is doing at a much deeper level’ Tania commented.

Andrea developed the point from a personal development perspective: ‘If it’s your ambition to move into a position like this, your university acumen needs to be very very high. Even if you’re not a member of the influential teams, go and attend the meetings.’ Having that broad knowledge can also be immensely beneficial when leadership changes.  ‘Teach yourself about the institution so that you have the knowledge to answer questions or fill knowledge gaps of new leaders.’

The role of reputation professionals in understanding the vital importance of relationships with stakeholders is also key. ‘Often we are pathways to finding out information’, said Andrea.   ‘We can ask the question and feed back information which is hard for other members of the table to get on their own, largely because they don’t have those relationships or it’s inappropriate for them to ask.’

2. Think strategically about reputation

Although reputation and brand are at the core of everything we do as communications and marketing teams, it is not always at the forefront of senior leadership thinking. Indeed, even the word ‘brand’ is often taboo. So how can we use our positions on senior leadership teams to change that way of thinking?

As Tania explained: ‘One of the roles that we do is we role model the sort of questions that should be asked before any major decision or response to any emotive situations are put out there’. Who do we need to let know in advance?  Is there anyone that we need to have meetings with before this goes out? Have we done any consultation with this community group or internally?  By asking questions in this way without explicitly mentioning reputation and by finding a way to hide any obvious concern you are gaining ‘a real advantage and it means that, as time goes on, people start to ask those questions for themselves’.

Stakeholder relationships are also key to developing a more strategic approach.  ‘You can build credibility in the role by bringing in feedback about how the university or particular actions are perceived and show that it is not just your voice/opinion you’re speaking to but a basis of evidence about how things will be received,’ said Alan.

Tania also spoke about the importance of using data to give credibility to activity and boost your reputation strategy. ‘It helps us direct our activity in areas that are likely to be most effective’. Specifically, she referenced her experience of gaining internal consensus around understanding the impact of global rankings. This was done alongside the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research which gave it additional credibility and the ear of other academic colleagues.

But often, as Alan experienced, the best way to drive reputation at a university may not be through the SLT. ‘When I became Associate Vice President, I was asked to set up some infrastructure to manage the university’s external relations and reputation and we set up a subcommittee with the president as the chair of that group. This was a better legacy and a better way of managing that activity than just an individual sitting at a table’.

3. Create alliances to build trust and spread reputation messages wider

External stakeholder relationships, as we have already explored, are vital. But building alliances with colleagues internally is just as important and, as we mentioned earlier, your president.

As Andrea outlined ‘You have to have influence across an institution because universities are so decentralised. Set up models where you have a communications person embedded in a faculty’s senior team or teams across an institution…as it begins to change the culture.’

And it’s not just with other communications colleagues. Alan states that it is immensely useful to create a ‘cadre of people who aren’t communications or marketing professionals’, in both the leadership of the university and wider, who have an appreciation and understanding of the importance of reputation and brand. ‘That’s as much about people who have an interest and passion in that area as it is about the positions they hold so that you’ve got people placed around the institution who engaged with the feedback you’re getting from surveys and are a voice for that in whatever circumstances they operate in.’

Also, think about your external alliances. One example came from Andrea’s pandemic experience. During COVID-19 Andrea sat on the City of Hamilton covid response team and was responsible for communications across hospitals and public health emergency response teams. She, therefore, had much more insight into what was happening that she could bring to the university. ‘It’s the alliances that you bring from outside of the institution that increase the value that you bring inside the institution’.

Gaining a seat at the top table of university leadership can be both an important step in your career, but also a way of ensuring that reputation becomes central to the strategy of the institution. But to maximise your impact, you have to think broadly, be creative and work hard at connections and alliances, as well as showing that you bring unique perspectives to the table. The more of an asset you are to your senior colleagues, the better chance you have of achieving the reputational goals of the university.

If you would like to watch the webinar in full a recording is available to members at the bottom of the webinar page and at the top of the member dashboard. You must be logged in to access both of these locations.