Managing your reputation after results day

  • As students receive their A-level and GCSE results, we offer guidance on how schools should manage their publicity in the wake of examination success or failure
  • Stakeholders should be identified, so that messaging can be tailored for their individual requirements and concerns
  • Social media is an expected means of keeping all interested parties up-to-date. However, the risks need to be identified and managed

In 2014 for the second year in a row, the number of students achieving A* to C grades fell in both GCSEs and A Levels.  It’s not all bad news, as in 2015 the results rose, and there was a significant increase in A* to C grades in English and Maths and a 111% increase in computing.

However, there were wide regional variations, with students in Northern Ireland and London delivering the best results compared with their counterparts in the Midlands and northern England.

Despite last year’s more positive results, at a national level there was little change, and teaching staff had to deal with negative publicity and the associated effect on their school’s reputation.

Victoria Gibson, one of our risk consultants, believes the reaction in the media reflects the changing relationship between schools and public relations.

“Until recently many comprehensives relied on local authorities to control their image,” she says. “But with the advent of free schools, the increase in academies and greater individual authority given to teachers, schools are more autonomous than ever, and have a bigger responsibility to manage their reputation.”

There is a lot of pressure to handle publicity with greater care – and the way to do this is to work out what your institute’s core risks are in advance.

“Everyone knows that poor results are bad for a school’s reputation, but not all schools prepare for them,” says Gibson. “The thing to do is to identify potential pitfalls and plan ahead. Breaking bad news isn’t easy, but if you have a considered response to a known risk you can control your message to the people that matter to your school the most – stakeholders.”

Stakeholders

Traditionally, school stakeholders include parents, teachers, staff, governors and students. Today, with reforms to education creating a more competitive, commercially-aware environment, this has expanded to incorporate the media and government regulators, as well as public and private partnerships. When evaluating potential risks, schools need to take into consideration these new connections.

Schools need to identify who their stakeholders are and how different risks will affect them.  A stakeholder risk matrix should be created, so that the relevant parties are addressed appropriately. There isn’t a universal model that will suit every school. Different ones have different stakeholders and risks, so messages will need to be individually tailored.

The possibility of bad results is one problem schools need to prepare for, but there are others. These include dealing with a drop in exam passes after a previously exceptional year and handling unexpected success or even countering misreporting by local media. Gibson believes a thorough approach is vital to any strategy.

“Control and consistency is key,” she says. “If your school has done well then capitalise on it. If a newspaper writes something that isn’t accurate, let the right stakeholders know and act accordingly. It all comes down to the same strategy – make sure your message is consistent and that the correct people are speaking to the appropriate audience.”

Representatives

Schools may exist in an increasingly commercial framework, but many will not have the resources for a dedicated communications team. So how do you select your official spokespeople?

There is no hard and fast rule, but it should be people you can trust to stick to your strategy, and present it as a unilateral response based on the consent of all stakeholders – not just senior teachers.

Moreover, given the changing nature of the relationship between schools, local authorities and other strategic partners, it’s important to keep plans updated. “If you’re still having your media image managed by a local authority, let them know the latest information,” says Gibson.

“Even if you aren’t, you need to keep your strategies fresh and make sure you’re engaging with people in the right way.”

Social media is one way of getting your message across. It is cheap, quick and accessible, with the potential to reach as many people as conventional media – but it can also be risky.

The benefits are huge, but so is the potential for misuse.  All it takes is for someone to publish something negative and trouble can spread like wildfire. Schools need social media accounts because their stakeholders expect instant responses, but they need to be managed by people you can trust.

So, what do you do if your school’s exam results have dropped again this summer and you haven’t formed a strategic media plan? Gibson thinks you should take a careful, but pragmatic approach.

“Don’t be reactive,” she says. “People can be forgiving but not if it sounds like you’re making excuses. Most of all learn from your mistakes. Sit down with your management team and work out what went wrong and how you can manage it better next year. Treat it as an opportunity, not as a failure.”