The opening day of the W100 Virtual Annual Conference brought together participants from around the globe across a range of time-zones. Six conference sessions, featuring speakers from Australia, Europe and North America, grappled with some of the reputation challenges of the age. 

It has been tough 

Reputation managers at universities have been running at full pelt since early in the year, and there is no sign of the pressure reducing anytime soon.  “We’re all making decisions through the lens of grief, shock and depression,” said Michael Schoenfeld from Duke University in a session with US universities on the impact of the pandemic.  And reputation leaders have had to dig deep. ‘The energy we’ve needed to bring to the challenge has been unprecedented’, said Johanna Lowe from the University of Sydney. 

Reputation is already being re-imagined 

Despite the pressure, universities are already re-thinking reputation management. A crisis is a good time to be innovative and try new things.” said David Estok from the University of Toronto. Institutions have become more creative in their communications; and have provided invaluable support to the huge effort to move teaching online. And universities focused on innovation are already thinking further ahead. Dan Dillon from Arizona State University talked about really pushing the brand. “How are we going to have the quality standards associated with Mercedes with the provocativeness and disruptiveness of TeslaThe approach we’re taking is to ask how we break through the norm. 

Getting the tone right 

Everyone is affected in some way by the pandemic; students, staff and external partners all feel their own pressures. We must remember that we are a community; this is something everyone is going through no matter where they are, said Danita Knight from Agnes Scott College.  Whilst the temptation in a fast-moving environment is to just get communications out speedily, thinking about tone is vital. “Empathy is really, really Important right now. We must convey that we understand what stakeholders are feeling and thinking,” said Terry Flannery from SUNY Stony Brook.  

Universities and wider society 

If the ivory tower had still existed before the pandemic, it has surely now been swept away – universities and society are more clearly engaged than ever.  “One key theme that has come out is the value of science to society said Toronto’s David Estok. “People are really turning to experts and universities.” However, it’s not always a simple relationship. “Campuses are entwined with the wider community,” said Bryan Alexander from Georgetown University. “If you take the students away then you risk an economic hitbring the students back and you risk endangering the wider community.”  

Join us for more sessions throughout the week, exploring further challenges and opportunities for university reputation in these interesting times.