Why Schools Need to Market Themselves

 

Linda Vining

 

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Education is an intangible product. It is impossible to see, smell or feel before buying. There is no standard article to display. Enrolling a child calls for a great leap of faith from parents. How do parents develop faith in the system?

Up until the early 60s the authority and legitimacy of education and educators was unquestioned. Education had instruments of power: certification, corporal punishment and geographical restriction. Parents went to school only in times of trouble or to applaud achievements at ceremonies. There was no need for promotion and public relations.

Over the last three decades the forces of change have burst asunder the education system. The media's thirst for sensational issues has been fuelled by strident criticism from academia, parent bodies, and teaching unions. Teachers and students have been great game for journalists with a preference for bad news.

The public response to education has changed. Probing questions now dominate educational discourse. Why is spelling so poor? Why don't children know their tables? What happened to grammar? Why is there violence in schools?

A social climate hungry for accountability has undermined the teaching profession. Confidence in the performance of teachers and the education system has been shaken. Now the client is chairing the School Council instead of waiting anxiously on a chair outside the principal's office. The old platform of authority has been swept away.

Partly driven by tough economic times, parents now look at education as an investment in their child's (and often their own) future. They are critically examining schools in order to make considered choices.

Falling enrolments and school closures provide strong evidence that schools are in a competitive marketplace. No longer can public and government support be taken for granted. Educators are beginning to realise that they must work to strengthen their school's identity and they must direct and protect their image as other professions and institutions do.

Marketing as a part of your strategic management plan

Marketing is a legitimate, relevant and viable school management strategy. It is a people-centred concept that can persuade others to support your vision. It can attract enrolments and encourage advocacy and sponsorship. Very importantly, it can play a key role in fostering loyalty in students, staff and parents.

Marketing is about building relationships through good communication. It focuses a school's attention on the specific needs of its users, otherwise called "customers". Individual schools need to convince their users that their school is satisfying their needs.

To be successful marketers, schools must learn to convey in simple language, to mixed audiences, the complex service they provide. Educators have never been comfortable blowing their own trumpet, but times have changed. Educators and their schools are under threat. Marketing techniques provide valuable and well-proven methods for communicating with the community.

Parents as valued customers

How do parents gain knowledge and understanding of education? The media is one source of information, but do educators and parents want to rely on that?

Communication coming from the principal and teachers is the other main source. Teachers are the interface between the school and the clients and as such they have a vital role to play and an essential message to convey.

It is marketing suicide for a teacher to criticise the school or other staff to an outside audience. Nothing undermines confidence in the school and the education profession faster than wrongly placed negative comment.

How are parents treated in your school? Do parents have the feeling that they are valued customers? Are they listened to? Most importantly, if they express a concern does the teacher get back to them describing the action that has been taken, acknowledging that the matter received attention.

Parents constantly complain that they don't get enough communication from the school. They only hear from the teacher when something is wrong. This is the antithesis of good customer service. The basis of a client focused service is to highlight the positives.

It is vitally important to affirm to parents that they are valued customers, that they are receiving a quality product and that they made the right choice when they chose your school.

Pupils and public relations

A major aspect of school promotion concerns the school's relationships with its pupils. The school has to sell its effectiveness to them. Pupils are the messengers who go out into every other area of society. They are instrumental in helping others form perceptions about the school. They are the next generation of parents whose attitudes to the school, the system and the profession will have a crucial impact.

Tools of marketing

When communicating with your present customers (pupils and parents) you are talking to your most valued audience and your best advocates, but the quality of your school is only as good as the perception your customers hold.

Do you use school publications merely as message carriers or do you add value to them, using them a part of your image management strategy?

For starters look at the regular newsletters and notices you send home. What is the tone of the school being conveyed via the schoolbag? Is your style of writing friendly, respectful and courteous or is it authoritarian and alienating? Do your regular notices bear a resemblance to the following rude directive - FORMS MUST BE RETURNED BY FRIDAY.

School newsletters have a tendency to be written in the "bossy tense" - 'You must do this'; 'You must arrive by...'; 'You must not park your car in...' Introduce a little PR into your publications. Don't be so serious and formal. Try journalese as a form of expression. Engage some outside help if you don't know how to go about it, in order to liven up the school newsletter.

A market oriented school uses every opportunity to paint the school in a positive light. Many channels of communication can be used to reach a school's internal audience as well as its external audience. The following channels are available:

´ circulars and fliers announcing coming events

´ seminars and parent information evenings

´ prospectus

´ special events (e.g. playnight)

´ direct mail

´ video shows

´ media advertising

´ shopping centre displays

´ newsletters

´ annual reports

´ open days

´ schools fairs/expos

Include sentimental profiles, words of admiration for others, quotable quotes from students and staff, computer graphics and some photographs. Give it a human feel with a sense of fun, a bit of frolic and a good dose of personality. Invest time and money in your regular newsletter; maybe get some professional help. Avoid an ad hoc approach. If well presented, your newsletter can be your most valuable vehicle of communication, particularly for working parents who crave closer contact with the school but cannot be present in person.

Avoid long lists of names and results. A newsletter is useless if nobody reads it. At a school where I was working to turn a deadly dull newsletter into a sparkling document I suggested to the sports teacher that she present her results in a "more animated way". That was all the invitation she needed. She proved to be a star writer with a wonderful ability to laugh at herself and her students' efforts.

The claims must be true!

School promotion should never be propaganda. Inaccurate and misleading information reduces credibility in the long term. Effective marketing means building public awareness and appreciation through good communication.

Effective outreach material in the form of advertising, a prospectus and positive media coverage will attract enquiry. The image you convey must be substantiated when parents contact the school. The starting point is usually the office. Does your school reflect a client-orientation at the first point-of-contact? Does the receptionist know the school? Has she actually sat in on classes and attended school functions? How many times does the phone ring before it is answered? Is the voice warm and agreeable or is it hurried and brusque? How does your receptionist deal with a "difficult" parent? When was the last time the administration staff had training in customer service?

Education is a service occupation. Unlike the commercial world, where success is judged by units sold and profits made, success in education and respect for the practitioners is measured by the satisfaction of the community it serves.

Effective marketing is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinion, slowly eroding barriers and quietly building appreciation.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.

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