Ahead of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2014, to be published on 5 March 2014, the THE rankings team spoke to communications expert, Georgy Cohen, about the increasingly important field of reputation management in higher education.
Cohen (@radiofreegeorgy) is director of online content at Suffolk University in Boston, US, and co-founder of Meet Content, a consultancy focused on content strategy for higher education. She previously worked at Tufts University and The Boston Globe.
Q. Are established university reputations (sometimes built over several centuries) more vulnerable than they have been in the past due to the rise of digital media and social networks, where bad news can travel fast and wide?
A. I think everything is more open and accessible now, so there is a little more vulnerability. Messages can spread quickly, and controlling them is nearly impossible. It's harder to hide a mistake because one person can capture a screenshot from a tweet or a webpage, or transcribe an overheard comment, and send it around the world in an instant. It's this speed - and the consequence of the story getting away from those responsible for representing the brand - that puts brands at risk.
But the best way to mitigate that vulnerability is to train the people responsible for the university's public face - meaning, anyone responsible for managing any outside-facing communications channel - to communicate intelligently in the first place, and to respond to crises with speed, honesty, responsiveness, and humility. These are very human qualities, but such is the way of digital communications - it's a highly personal approach.
And just like an individual can sometimes be too proud to admit when they've made a mistake, a big brand could do the same and assume that the strength of the brand can withstand bad news or scandal. But while I think that it would take a lot to bring down an established brand, you can't hide from it. You need to acknowledge it and face it head on, because everyone is watching and their expectations are very human.
Q. How central to a university’s reputation today is a strong digital communications strategy? With major global institutions recruiting faculty and students globally, is a strong social media presence essential?
A. I believe it is essential, yes, but not to the exclusion of more traditional media. Because the digital space is so ubiquitous, a university can't ignore it, but I think the belief by some that "print is dead" is misplaced. Its role has simply changed. And there is a real power to be tapped in leveraging a range of media in concert, digital and analog alike, to communicate a message or reinforce a brand. Integrated communications efforts can be extremely effective if planned and executed well, using each medium in a way that is best suited to it.
It may seem like big brands don't need to work as hard at social media and the like because their goals are different - they're not scrambling to hit numbers for incoming class members or average grade point average, for instance - but their challenge may be in making their centuries-old brand relevant and accessible via digital media. No one can afford to rest on their laurels, nowadays. We all have to work to remain relevant and stake out a spot on the new digital landscape, lest we not be seen as part of the mix. As always, it's about keeping goals and audience at top of mind. Different platforms (or combinations of platforms, in the case of an integrated approach) work best for different goals and different audiences.
Q. How effective are digital communications in helping less traditionally prestigious institutions grow their influence and academic standing?
A. I think that the web and social media offer any institution a chance to distinguish themselves and elevate external perceptions. This is particularly true with social media, where success comes through showing personality, communicating meaningfully, and building relationships. An unresponsive but prestigious brand may not be perceived as positively via social media as a brand that, while perhaps less prestigious, makes an effort to communicate with their target audience in mind, in a personal and engaging fashion.
A prestigious institution's digital communications efforts may, one could argue, be held back by that perception of prestige, since it might not feel able to take risks, or communicate in a way that could “damage” the brand or appear “beneath” it. Both types of institutions have messages to share, but who is more effective in doing so? One of my favourite examples of this is the University of Lincoln, in the UK, who created a promotional video in a hip, animated style highly evocative of online pop culture memes. The video acknowledges that Lincoln is no Oxford, but while interspersed with silly references to studying to become a sandwich inspector, it conveys the message that Lincoln does have some cool programs, a welcoming attitude, and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of humour about itself. It connects with the prospective student, which is no small feat.