School children

Can you put a price on your Trust or School’s reputation?

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.”

Warren Buffett

As a Trust or School your reputation is everything. In an era when we depend greatly on gaining the confidence and support of our communities, and when expectations for learning and safeguarding have rightly never been higher, we know how precious reputation is. As Warren Buffett tells us: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.”

When it comes to crisis, prevention is always better than the cure when one contemplates the devastating cases that have befallen some Trusts and Schools. However, even the soundest of policies and most reputable of organisations can fall foul through no fault of the Trust or School, but sometimes just down to the behaviour of one individual. And those mistakes can be just as costly.

In our experience, the two main areas where our Trusts often need support is when there have been cases of financial challenge, or of general misconduct. Even prior to Covid-19, grievances around financial conduct were plentiful and whilst these continue to make a regular appearance, it is the conduct/misconduct around sexual behaviour within our schools that is dominating the news and safeguarding agendas right now.

Shocking headlines still grip the nation and education is right up there in the firing lines, with teachers and schools under the spotlight, as ever. And believe you me, a journalist on the hunt for a ‘story’ need not look too far. Rich pickings are sitting right there on GOV.UK’s recent list of Teacher Misconduct Reports for all to see, and it’s highly concerning and deeply uncomfortable reading for any of us.

Surprisingly, there is still a disparity on time, energy and spend accounted for between operational responses to crisis and communication crisis planning and delivery itself. Yet there is one thing for sure: you may have a handle on your operations but unless you’re equally equipped on a communication level your reputation could be in the hands of, at best, relative strangers and, at worst, your enemy. You can quickly lose control of a story that is no fault of your own, but can negatively define perceptions for a long time to come.

Preparation is key:

Do you have a communications plan ready for when a crisis comes? Have you taken time to establish the “what ifs” and considered how you would link your operational response with reputation-focused communications?

No one can predict when a crisis will happen, and the danger of leaving it ‘until tomorrow’ is that tomorrow may already be too late. When a crisis happens, people will depend on you to provide a measured and appropriate response that ensures your staff, parents, pupils and other stakeholders have sufficient confidence. The plan must be ready to work seamlessly, identifying key processes for identifying and drafting a response, engaging with all necessary stakeholders, and ensuring advice – from legal to media management – is readily accessible.

Much can be done to mitigate the impact of a crisis, starting with having an effective and robust communication plan in place. This will ensure you are prepared and the people responsible for delivery will be ready to take control.

What happens when things go wrong:

People first, always. That’s the vital piece of advice to remember, if nothing else. Hold it up as a mirror to every piece of communication going out to every single stakeholder. Your priority is to protect your children, your families and your staff. Meaningful action is all well and good, but you must ensure this is communicated to all of the relevant stakeholders with careful consideration of the lens through which each view it. There are times for reassurance, times for determined comment, and times for clarification and reiteration of a position – you will know which is best by considering the lens through which your stakeholders will view the situation, together with careful advice. Please, please, please refrain from “no comment”. The media may decide to take the agenda into their own hands – and a parent, teacher or partner may be all too willing to give their eschewed side to the story.

Control the narrative:

Once you’re embroiled in a crisis it’s imperative your operational plan and communication plan kick in at the same time. Measured updates can be distributed at appropriate times to keep your stakeholders in the loop. By imparting regular updates designed to inform but not inflame you will be able to control the output of communication and most importantly, stem the flow of speculation and fuel-loaded rumours.

It is very easy as a leader to read about crisis with a sense of detachment and consider crisis management as a ‘nice to have’. That’s all well and good until crisis comes, and that’s the thing about crisis, we just never know when it will. Investing in a crisis management plan is an investment that you won’t regret, and – indeed – may one day be extremely grateful for. 

Katie Whirledge is Director of Papillon Communications, advising a number of Academy Trust CEOs and a partner to Forum Strategy.