Managing Word of Mouth

 

Linda Vining

 

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Every school has a reputation; good or bad. And every day, a hidden, unsystematic network of talk is either eroding or building your school image.

Because of a quirk of human nature, negative talk reaches a much wider audience than positive talk. You cannot stop negative talk, you shouldn't even waste your time trying. Instead you can practice pro-active strategies to manage what people are saying about you. Word-of-mouth management is a vital part of a school's strategic marketing plan.

The potential to exploit positive talk is enormous. There are many types of talk to carry your message. Make sure that every aspect of school talk is working in your favour and circulating widely to appropriate audiences.

Types of talk

Formal Talk is the official party line. It projects the values and tone of the school. Students learn what is expected of them, parents receive messages on school values and the community interprets the information to determine school standards. Everybody who hears this authorised talk uses it to position the school in the education marketplace. It can be a powerful voice in influencing people's perceptions.

Newsletter Talk is community talk that informs and invites. A bossy authoritarian tone using rude directives such as 'you must do this and you must be here' can mask the image of a friendly, caring school. Many parents complain that the dictatorial tone of newsletters and notices offends them.

Selling Talk is your outreach material. It includes your prospectus, annual report and brochures. Such documents will convey an impressive image if they are professionally prepared and up-to-date.

Media Talk is written in a journalistic style about a specific event. It can greatly influence public opinion, particularly if there is regular supply of it.

Letter Talk is personal talk. Your letterhead, crest, business stationery and page layout says a lot about you, in addition to your written words.

Memo Talk is business talk: the channel for sharing information with staff. The principal sets the tone for this talk. Negative talk from management can be easily misinterpreted. Part of the principal's job is to talk continually to keep everybody informed and enthused.

Switchboard Talk is often the first point of contact a person has with the school. People are extremely sensitive to how they are treated on the phone, particularly when they cannot see you and have nothing else to go by.

Grapevine Talk is the informal talk that spreads and defines information passing through the system, The instant somebody becomes a customer, they share the right to talk about the school, to judge it and to broadcast their perceptions.

Negative talk

Not only can negative talk damage the reputation of the school, it can undermine individuals and the whole teaching profession. How can a school stop people badmouthing the organisation they should be cheer leading for?

Negative talk about a school often starts within the school and quickly spreads along the grapevine. Careless insider talk is like unguided missiles flying around the school. Staff talk is extremely powerful. It influences parents and community and it affects the morale, performance and motivation of staff and students.

Management of word-of-mouth starts at the top. A major role of the principal is to inspire positive talk. Here are some tips for handling the most influential sources of talk.

Repeatedly emphasise to teachers that they are influential members of the community. They are highly qualified professionals and people want to respect them, particularly parents. They are ambassadors for their profession as well as their particular school. Often people judge the entire profession by the comments of just one teacher they know.

Highlight the positive things that staff can emphasise. So often staff (teaching and support) have little idea about the fine work that is going on in other parts of the school.

Organise staff seminars on public relations. Hire a facilitator to conduct an in-service program. Don't isolate word-of-mouth marketing in the public relations department. Good PR is everybody's business.

Make it a deadly sin to badmouth. Equally, reward those who talk positively. The principal sets the example in a myriad of ways by giving compliments, passing on the appreciation of others, commending ideas and acknowledging extra time freely given. It's worth noting that the major reason for job dissatisfaction in all organisations is that staff don't feel a sense of appreciation for the work they do.

The value of complaints

The most damaging talk of all is that generated by upset or dissatisfied customers. Parents freely admit that they fail to enlighten the source of their dissatisfaction. The reasons they give for this are:

They believe nothing will come of it.

It takes too much time and effort.

The principal or staff get too defensive.

Parents fear the school will brand them a whinger.

They don't know how to register a complaint

Memories of their own schooldays inhibit and intimidate them

It's the rare school administrator who knows the negative word-of-mouth messages that are circulating outside the school. It's easy to pick up on the compliments and be lulled into false security, but what about the other perceptions. How can you find out what they are?

You can make it easy for people to bring their complaints to you. Complaints give you information, they are a barometer on people's attitudes.

You may be afraid that if you are too willing to listen to complaints you'll be swamped with hundreds of callers. Think of it this way. You don't have problems when your customers are talking to you in droves. You have major unreconcilable problems when your customers stay silent and talk to everybody else.

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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