Enhanced university reputations cannot be fuelled by intellect alone, argues Nick Agarwal
He may have said it almost 2,500 years ago, but Socrates had it right when it comes to reputation management: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.”
Who can argue with that? Not me. I’ve been fortunate to work for many commercial leaders who do not instinctively launch into knee-jerk defensiveness when things go awry. Instead, they look calmly at themselves and work to put things right. (As the Greek philosopher also said: “Let him that would move the world, first move himself.”)
But while those leaders know that being what they “desire to appear” is the entry ticket to a healthy long-term reputation, it does not guarantee it. Being good on its own is not enough: you also need a clear narrative that demonstrates it, and your stakeholders have to understand it, believe it and be prepared to endorse it to others.
Building such advocacy on an intellectual foundation is not enough: the narrative needs to engage the emotions, too. Nowhere was this clearer to me than during my time working for the US retail giant Walmart.
For many years, Walmart battled its domestic reputation problems with data, even launching a website titled walmartfacts.com. This culminated in an analysis by consultants Global Insight detailing by how much the company had raised living standards. The report’s conclusion was a simple one: because of the size of its impact on the market, Walmart in the round saved each US household more than $2,300 (£1,400) a year, whether they shopped with it or not.
But did the politicians who had been critical of the company immediately declare their love for it? Of course not: the data were not enough even to bring them to the table. But within 18 months, many of the company’s domestic critics were sharing a platform with Walmart and were keen to engage it in dialogue.
What happened? By the end of 2006, Walmart began to use its size and scale to bring down the cost of US healthcare through a $4 generic prescription that slashed the cost of drugs overnight. Americans – especially senior citizens – were paying hundreds of dollars a month less for their medicine: in a country where many would argue that the cost of healthcare is the number one issue, that’s a big deal.
Suddenly that dry Global Insight data made sense, brought alive through a programme that emotionally connected with customers and opinion-leaders alike.
The importance of head and heart in building the reputation of higher education institutions is, I believe, still a work-in-progress in the global academy.
Yes, league tables and the data that support them matter. Hard empirical evidence of our impact in teaching and research is important for students, funding bodies and staff (in the final instance allowing us to judge our performance and raise our standards).
But as important as that information is – and the evidence suggests that league tables are increasingly influential – we cannot let it be our only focus if we want our communications to succeed.
In 2012, I started work at the University of Sheffield. As soon as I joined I was blown away by the scale of ambition my academic colleagues shared with me.
Around every corner I seemed to stumble across scholars with a deep sense of purpose, looking to leave legacies that could change the world: volcano monitoring technology that could save thousands of lives; clothing that can take pollution out of the air we breathe; and cures for neurodegenerative conditions such as motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. (Frankly, by mentioning only a handful of ways in which my institution is working to solve big global problems, I am doing it an overwhelming injustice.)
But as a communications professional who has seen first-hand the power of combining both head and heart to build reputation, I believe we can do much more to drive understanding of our contribution to the world more widely, not just to those who come to study or work with us. Our story has power precisely because the impact of our work engages emotionally as well as intellectually.
I have been involved with a world-class university for long enough to know that academic communities thrive on data and evidence; but I also know that we humans are storytellers – we are motivated not only by the facts but also by what they mean, how they address our fears and fulfil our hopes and dreams.
Of course, education at its core is a profoundly idealistic endeavour, yet that is not always clear from the outside. Some see us as degree factories; others believe “academic” means dry and bookish, lacking heart.
The reality is that universities are deeply involved in the human condition: we should not be shy of saying how and why. We need to tell our story not only to one another but also to those who may believe that what goes on in our lecture theatres and labs has little or nothing to do with them.
And because we are who we aspire to be, this is a page from the commercial reputation playbook that we can make our own.
Nick Agarwal is director of corporate affairs at the University of Sheffield. He was previously strategic communications director for UK retailer Asda and vice-president, marketing and corporate affairs, for US-based global retailer Walmart.