Why is it that one public school enjoys the reputation of being the ‘best’ local school, while others do not?
Practically every Principal I’ve spoken to about marketing communications has reported such behavioural trends in their parent communities.
It’s what some jokingly call the ‘sheoples’ phenomenon – when parents flock to one school on the basis of reputation and the grapevine (they get good VCE results), without any real investigation of their own, even when neighbouring schools are performing well.
In my experience the ‘sheoples’ phenomenon usually kicks in because somewhere along the line, the popular school has built a credible reputation.
For aspirational parents who are enrolling a child in secondary school for the first time, credibility means trustworthiness. This means they are prepared to entrust the popular school with their child’s education because they believe that their child will be looked after and be happier, have better opportunities and support, and will ultimately have greater success.
In trying to change such strongly held belief systems, however misguided, we must address what is known as ‘Cognitive Dissonance’. This is the discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotions simultaneously.
It can be caused by a contradiction between new information received and information we hold as truths (beliefs).
Individuals react differently to Cognitive Dissonance. Some dismiss the new information off hand, while others may test it. For most, changing long held beliefs usually takes time unless the new idea has high credibility.
Given the importance and high emotional investment for parents, building or maintaining credibility is the cornerstone of successful marketing and engagement campaigns. This means that the leadership team must feel confident that their marketing messages can stand up to public scrutiny.
For example, outstanding VCE results are a good opportunity to celebrate and promote the success of the school. However, making broad claims about the academic standing of the school could be inappropriate, unless good VCE results continue over a number of years.
If a school has a positive story to tell it is better to tell it accurately and expansively.
For example academic success for students is usually the result of consistent and persistent effort and a collaboration of people supporting them. Most would agree that through the senior years this is particularly important when teenagers become more exposed to external distractions and influences.
In this regard the expansive story could be about how the school has been engaged with parents or guardians and mentors to build good relationships, and know their students well, It could include how this helps to provide the individual attention that students need to succeed, which has ultimately translated to positive results.
Through such an approach, the College is demonstrating that their actions are consistent with the marketing words. This is the basis of building and maintaining credibility and trust.
Used carefully, pretty brochures are useful communication tools, but they do not stand alone and simply telling parents that the school values excellence is not enough. Certainly the more ardent non believers, if they register such motherhood statements at all, will dismiss them without a second glance.
Principals can test their school’s credibility with the following check list of questions:
- High expertise – What are we good at, what is our expertise?
- Consistency – Are our implicit and explicit messages sound and congruous with our expertise?
- Conviction – Do we have passion and believe in what we are selling?
- Care – Do we show that we care for our students and parents?
- Respect – Do we actively listen and care about the things that are important to our parents, students and communities?
- Honesty – Do we avoid hidden agendas, misinformation and withholding information?
- Follow through – Do we back up our words with actions?
- Evidence – Do we substantiate our claims and statements with facts?
If, after answering these questions honestly, you are still unsure, ask this simple question – Would I enrol my child at this school?
If there are doubts, get a working party together and ask why. The answers will usually tell you where to start.