Warren Buffet summed it up; “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
When we think of a college’s reputation, it’s a gut emotional response, based on anecdote and word of mouth over time. If the reputation is good, we trust it. We believe that it will deliver all the things we expect of it, even in times of uncertainty and unrest. It’s a first impression that stays with you. Over time, we come to know what institutions stand for.
Why does this matter? Because reputation is the engine that drives enrollment and fundraising.
Right now, in the make-it-or-break-it, high holy season of college admissions, when no one can say with any confidence what the next academic year will look like, senior leaders increasingly rely on reputation to do the heavy lifting.
Fundraising and donor stewardship are critical as colleges and universities navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, this is the time to reinforce your reputation. Donors want to be assured that their alma mater continues to make a unique and significant difference in the lives of students, faculty, alumni, and the world.
This is not a time to be quiet. You’ll want to deepen your efforts and find new ways to tell your story and the ROI of continuing investment in your college.
How do your constituencies rate your reputation? Good? bad? Somewhere on the spectrum? It’s a qualitative scale, based largely on perception.
A networked generation of prospective students and parents are more inclined to trust the opinions of anonymous peers on the internet rather than official communications from the Office of College Relations. Managing reputation requires vigilance, consistent proactivity and open participation in the cacophony of virtual conversations. You must immerse yourself in the platforms and channels your wider community pays attention to, and do far more than manage the news and the imagery.
Here are some things you can do:
- Try to define your reputation
Get a handle on it using all available data and, past and present. Strip it down to its bare essentials and see what you’ve got. Use online surveys to see what alumnx, faculty, staff and donors understand your reputation to be. Where are the points of intersection and divergence? Use these to construct a strong and distinct messaging architecture.
- A good reputation is your marketing strategy
Your reputation lives and breathes on its own. It’s a collective perception. Identify yours and start to build from there. Block out the noise and set your sights on core messages. Make reputation “proof” of your brand and build from there. It’s a rock-solid foundation.
- Dedicate real time to social media
Find out where your audiences are active and join them there. Make sure that your communications reflect the reputational framework you have established and that senior leadership, as well as Communications staff understand and incorporate the newly-framed reputational concepts in their posts and responses.
- Show that you are listening
Actively engage in social media conversations. Become known for your responsiveness as questions and concerns arise. Don’t let a lack of response be interpreted as a “no comment.”
- Find your narrative
Give people reasons to trust you. Don’t just mouth the platitudes. Find stories about faculty, staff, students and alumnx that show the impact of your well-earned reputation. Feature these prominently — on your website, in your alumnx magazine; in your marketing, admissions, and advancement publications. Showing beats telling every time.
Understand that your reputation is foundational, and that while you cannot control the ebb and flow of opinion, you have influence. Reputation will always be one of your greatest assets.