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It is hard to place a specific value on reputation, but higher ed marketers understand that it's important.

In fact, “Reputation is an organization’s most competitive asset,” noted Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, a global PR firm, at a panel on college and university reputation at the recent CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) Summit 2019. According to research by Weber Shandwick, as much as 60% of market value is attributed to company reputation and damage to brand reputation tops the list of risks to organizations around the world.

Gaines-Ross noted that the building blocks of a sterling reputation remain the same now as in years past, including how responsible an organization is, how it communicates, what product and services it offers, how its employees behave, how fiscally responsible it is, and how it’s led.

At the same panel, Maggy Ralbovsky, executive vice president and managing director of the RW Jones Agency, argued that higher ed communicators must adopt the mindset that reputation is a long-term investment. It requires consistent attention and financial commitment.

That’s because the challenges to sustaining reputation are different now. In our world of distraction, communicators need to work harder than ever to develop and sustain their institution’s reputation. Stakeholders often miss messages from an institution because their attention diverts to so much other information coming at them through multiple channels and from friends, families, and so many brands, organizations, and institutions.

All those narratives….

Ralbovsky observed that it’s essential for communicators in higher ed to consider how their institution is responding to the external trends dominating the narrative about our industry. Among them are the cost of higher ed; access to and influence over education opportunity; the worth of a college education; and freedom of expression on our campuses. There’s an additional layer of complexity as larger issues in our society impact our communities and gain attention well beyond the confines of our campuses: #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are just two examples.

And today, there are plenty of ways for a simmering issue on campus to burst into a full-blown crisis. Ralbovsky pointed out that no institution is immune to having a crisis escalate into one that can inflict significant damage on its reputation. This is one important reason for institutions to communicate clearly and often around these issues, which allows them to get ahead of the competing narratives coming from the political left and right.

She suggested that there are two types of crises that may beget continued coverage and affect an institution’s reputation for an ongoing period — litigation that takes months and cases where there are repeats of the same or related issues. Both create multiple opportunities for press coverage and subsequent stakeholder reactions. As Gaines-Ross noted, “Google is a reputation management engine.”

There does seem to be an advantage in that distraction cuts both ways: distracted stakeholders might not pay attention to messages from institutions, but they may miss coverage during a crisis in the rush of other news and information in newsfeeds and inboxes.

In one of her slides, Gaines-Ross shared twenty principles of reputation management. Many are tried and true. Part of sustaining your reputation should be focusing on building deeper relationships with constituents and stakeholders. Two of her reminders are particularly timely:

  • Social media plays a major role in the court of public opinion and 
court is always in session
  • Reputation is everyone’s job 

All the more support for a focused, sustained effort to cultivate awareness about the importance of an institutions’s brand and the role that everyone on campus, from grounds keepers to its CEO plays in keeping it strong.

Michael Stoner is president and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first marketing agency.