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.
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.
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:
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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