How thought leadership can build your institution’s reputation online
Will Harvey explains how institutions can use research proactively to enhance the perception of their capabilities and character
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The advent of social media, from Facebook and WeChat to podcasts and YouTube, and the proliferation of influencers, means that the activities of universities are reaching much larger audiences at breakneck speeds. Your institution’s reputation online will only become more important as more “digital natives” enter higher education.
The views of many stakeholders build the reputation of your institution:
- students, in relation to their studies
- academics, for research and collaboration
- businesses, as potential employers
- policymakers, to whom the institution provides evidence-based insight
- other universities, for research and education partnerships
- philanthropists, for investment
- funding bodies, who decide how to allocate public resources.
Their perceptions are informed by their evaluation of your institution’s past capabilities and character. Capabilities could be perceived as quality of education or the publication and grant record among faculty. Character could be the approach your institution takes to social mobility and environmental issues or how it treats its staff and students.
Reputation is not only about stakeholders looking at your institution’s record but also its future contributions, such as whether it will offer students an outstanding learning experience or labour market preparation, or excellent research outcomes for funders. It is also about your distinct excellence in areas that are important to your stakeholders.
Factors that your institution can use to enhance its reputation include thought leadership, rankings performance and communication through channels such as social media.
How is your online reputation changing?
A proliferation of national and international rankings affect how stakeholders perceive your institution. Accreditations and government evaluation exercises also help people make more informed judgements about university quality. But with so many sources of data, institutions can claim to be winners or be perceived as losers depending on which table or metric they are judged against.
Traditional mass media are quick to report on the best and the worst in class because stories about institutions that have climbed or fallen down the slippery rankings ladder receive more sales and clicks than those holding on in the middle. Social media serve to amplify the effect of such stories on your reputation.
Given the number of potential reputation markers there are, it is important to be proactive about how you project your institution externally. Memorable stories about universities, which capture wider public attention, tend to be the ones that are distinctive and surprising. For example, over the summer, my colleagues at the University of Exeter shared a press release on a new tool that can measure the carbon footprint of Cornish pasties.
This was timely for three reasons. First, the summer is when most of the 120 million Cornish pasties are consumed and people don’t necessarily associate Cornish pasties with a carbon footprint. Second, it was released a few days before the 47th G7 summit, hosted by the UK in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. Third, it built on the university’s research expertise in environmental sustainability.
Some ways to share surprising or memorable information proactively is through presentations, social networks and marketing. Another route is thought leadership based on your research, through traditional media, podcasts, webinars and outreach programmes.
Sharing your research and academic expertise with wider audiences
Universities have a golden opportunity to share their research to both inform the public and to provide practical solutions to issues facing business and government. While universities do produce press releases on selected research, they could do much more to empower academics to reach wider audiences through media such as blogs, videos, infographics and interviews. Universities can help in several ways:
- Build relationships with journalists. For example, the University of Exeter Business School has a contract with a communications consultancy, which has helped me speak directly to journalists about my research, leading to features in high-quality and relevant business media such as the Financial Times and Bloomberg.
- Showcase research on the institution’s website and social media platforms. This helps make research that is either hidden behind paywalls or written in an academic style accessible to wider audiences. Exeter Expertise, for example, is a dedicated page where we share stories about our business school’s research. We focus on our strengths: environmental sustainability, responsible leadership and technological transformation.
- Craft content for alumni, faculty and professional learners. We developed a business podcast, a free webinar series of world-leading speakers for our MBA students, alumni and faculty, and a live event on sustainable jobs for our alumni at the Institute of Directors.
- Think beyond the institution. Recently, I gave a talk on thought leadership for a major business school accreditation body, a mini lecture for a high school in Myanmar and an online talk for the British Council in China.
Success can be measured by the number and quality of engagements we have, the feedback we receive around the quality of our thought leadership, and whether over time there is alignment between what we want others to think about our business school and what they actually think about our business school, in other words, our reputation. We gauge this through feedback from surveys, face-to-face and online connections, and through alumni and advisory boards.
It is vital that your content is high quality because, while we do not have a shortage of information online, we do have a lack of evidence-based content. This is where your university can build its reputation as well as help enhance the legitimacy and status of the higher education sector.
These are a few ways your institution and staff can build on their research and networks to engage with stakeholders. Remember that many institutions can cherry-pick a ranking, survey or endorsement that shows them to be world-leading in something. This is why finding something that is both distinctive and credible, and can be evidenced through high-quality thought leadership, will help your institution stand out for your stakeholders.
Will Harvey is associate dean of global at the University of Exeter Business School.
He has been shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here with the winners due to be announced at a ceremony on 25th November.