Lessons in school marketing from a pandemic
Alison Taylor, Managing Director
Everyday life across the world has been turned up-side-down this year and educators are seeing the impact of this in so many, often unexpected, ways. While there have undoubtedly been many obstacles to navigate and difficult decisions to be made, the majority of schools have risen to the challenge with admirable flexibility and resilience.
Very sadly, evidence shows that the pandemic has had its most devastating impact on people living in more deprived communities across the country. It follows that the schools within these areas will have had more positive cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) than those in affluent areas, and these schools will have seen more disruption to their students’ education.
Unsurprisingly, well-resourced private schools have been able to rise to the challenges of remote and blended learning during lockdown and isolation with comparative ease (not to down-play the considerable amount of extra hard work that has gone into preparation). The obstacles for many maintained schools have been greater, often with more limited technological expertise and equipment, staff capacity for preparing and delivering online lessons, safeguarding, student access and engagement issues. Research from the London School of Economics released on BBC Panorama shows that 74 percent of independent school students had a full remote timetable during the first lockdown, compared with only 38 percent of state school students; around 2.5 million children had no schooling or tutoring at all while at home. Having said this, in our experience, some maintained schools have managed extraordinarily well, with staff going to heroic levels ensure minimum negative impact on students’ learning.
For families that haven’t felt a direct negative impact of COVID-19 on their jobs and income, the obvious benefit of having children in private education during lockdown and isolation is that they have been able to continue working productively, from home, without the trials and tribulations of juggling home schooling. It’s possible that, with new-found disposable income as a result of lockdown and home-working, more families will be considering private education for their children in the coming year: the percentage of disposable income saved during 2020 rose from 9.6% to 29.1%.
Arguably, the biggest impact the pandemic has had on education across the globe is, of course, the total breakdown of the usual examination seasons. The by-products of this are that trust in grades is diminished and parents will no longer have league tables to reference as an indicator of a school’s academic standing – not that I would ever advocate using league tables to determine suitability of a school but we all know that parents do refer to them. The Sunday Times Parent Power has used 2019 examinations data to ‘rank’ schools in an attempt to give parents some guidance.
With much of the future now uncertain or unknown, parents are, understandably, anxious about their children’s education, so how can schools leverage the lessons of 2020 in their marketing, public relations and other communications, to strengthen their reputations and reassure families that their children’s education is in good hands?
At a time when school visits and tours are not possible, finding ways to give parents visibility of the school and access to key staff is essential. The extensive use of Teams, Zoom and other online meeting platforms, means that video conferencing is now part of most people’s every day personal and professional lives, and this has opened up a multitude of possibilities for school visits and tours, group presentations, meetings and teacher-parent discussions.
We’ve also learned that strong school communications, which builds and maintains relationships within the school community, can be very useful, especially in times of crises. Parents and students buy-in to the passion, commitment and care of a school’s staff, especially the head and subject teachers, and they are also influenced by the achievements of alumni and will find reassurance in stories of success. So, using the authentic voices of students, alumni and parents, who have experienced the benefits of the support their school has provided during the recent turbulence, can be very powerful and compelling, when used in external and internal marketing and communications activities – videos featuring students and showcasing the facilities will offer prospective families a window on the school, its culture and more.
The use of Zoom by mainstream broadcasters to enable guests to be interviewed on TV shows has helped to promote acceptance of videos with a home-made feel, and this means that schools can now create valuable video assets at a fraction of the cost previously invested. Research shows that online video content continues to increase in popularity and it is forecast that by 2022 around 82% of all online content will be video – schools can take advantage of this trend to reach new groups of prospective parents.
One other very important factor to consider is the impact that uncertainty around examinations may have on the perceived ‘value’ of academic achievements above vocational qualifications or industry experience. With industry degrees and apprenticeships now consistently in the news, it is inevitable that emphasis will change over time and, as it does, the importance to parents of their chosen school having strong industry links, work experience opportunities and careers guidance will grow; and schools that are able to evidence excellent provision in this area, above and beyond the expected Gatsby benchmarks, will be in demand.
Finally, we’ve learned that the value of having a robust crisis communications plan, covering internal and external audiences, and rules of engagement for media in place, together with a designated team to implement it and a strong spokesperson, cannot be underestimated. When things ‘go wrong’ or a crisis strikes, there are too many priorities to consider in school without worrying about responding to interested and often persistent journalists. Yet, woe betide you if you don’t respond to their questions satisfactorily or on time, especially if the ‘story’ has community implications outside of the school, as in the case of COVID-19. A less than positive media story can damage the hard-fought reputation of a school overnight.