World Reputation Rankings 2016: there must be substance behind the spin

The opinions of others are key to creating or damaging an institution's reputation

May 4, 2016
Man whispering in other man's ear
Source: Getty

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Let’s test a theory. You’ve got the opportunity to work at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. At your interview, you heard from senior staff about life at the university and what the department is like. You’ve always been impressed by the calibre of research and the honours won by staff.

Everything sounds great.

Now you hear from two people who work there.

“Management is incompetent, most likely from the Jurassic era,” says one.

“Hard to move up in your own department because people never leave,” says the other. “I’ve been here several years and have worked my butt off but still no awards even though I have gone above and beyond.”

Do you still take the job? What’s the worth of a university’s history and prestige, or the official line from managers, when you’ve heard testimony from your potential future colleagues about the day-to-day and future prospects?

This is a crude illustration of the “influence mix”: the three basic factors that guide our choices described in 2014 by Itamar Simonson of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

A blend of our prior perceptions (P), marketing (M) and information from others (O) influences our decisions, according to Simonson. When any one factor claims our attention, the influence of the other two diminishes.

But the O in Simonson’s equation has never been more potent. One legacy of Web 2.0, the social web, is that everything gets reviewed. Access to opinion has become super-abundant and liberated from being a question of who you know, to more a question of where you look for answers.

Take the two quotations about what life is like at “one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions” in our little thought experiment.

Both are real employee comments about one well-known US university taken from

It’s a website that carries individual anonymised reviews of thousands of companies and organisations around the world – attracting 40 million-plus visits from curious job candidates in the US in February alone this year.

You’ll find reviews of more than 4,000 universities.

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You’ll find staff indicating the pros and cons of working in that organisation – in both academic and administrative roles – as well as salary ranges for jobs and even accounts of how job interviews and the recruitment process worked in particular departments.

Think reviews are just for booking holiday travel, online marketplaces and price comparison sites? Or that it’s just students who are reviewing universities? Think again.

Some institutions have just a handful of employee reviews, some dozens, some hundreds.

This is the direction online recruitment across industries is heading – candidates want more than a job description and an application pack; they want to know what the work environment is like before they apply.

They want to look beneath the marketing, beyond the reputation, before making a choice.

We look for reviews before we make purchases for relatively trivial sums – let alone life-changing decisions – because we want “proof points” of value. We want affirmation (or otherwise) that we’re about to make a good decision.

With just a few clicks of online research, we’re tapping the O factor in Simonson’s influence mix.

So here’s the lesson for university administrators. You can cherish your institution’s prestige. You can add gloss with clever, engaging marketing.

But you can’t escape reviews and the shared opinions of others.

Do you respond? Do you ignore them?

Want to know the best approach for the review-everything culture in which we now live?

Sell on a false prospectus and you’ll be found out and called out.

Reputation-building can’t just be spin: there has to be substance behind it.

You can’t PR your way to credibility, good management and departmental excellence. It doesn’t last and certainly doesn’t persuade in the long run.

So what’s your best option?

Fix the problems your staff gripe about.

They may even thank you for it…online.

Paul Hill
Media, marketing and technology journalist and former content director at Further, an award-winning digital marketing agency in the UK
Twitter: @paulhill_biz

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