Gaining a Reputation
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 4:25PM
Andrea Jarrell

An image audit can reveal what people think of your campus—before you recruit, campaign, or communicate

An image audit, also known as a reputation audit, helps communications and marketing officers understand how their campuses are perceived by key constituencies. This process can serve as the first step in developing a comprehensive communications and marketing plan. Jarrell provides advice on focusing an audit, conducting an audit with and without consultants, building on-campus support for the effort, and acting on the audit’s recommendations.

By Andrea Jarrell

Perception is reality. This bit of pop psychology could be a mantra for communications and marketing officers who are trying to determine how key audiences assess their institutions' reputations.

Is a campus respected or reviled? Supported or suspected? Impeccable or impeachable? To find the answers, savvy campus communicators increasingly conduct reputation audits as the first step in a comprehensive communications and marketing plan, especially one that precedes major institution initiatives such as capital campaigns or expanded recruiting programs.

The most effective reputation audits assess the perceptions of both internal and external constituents and gauge a wide range of attitudes, impressions, beliefs, and values. Once, campus leaders defined an institution's image largely by how well it was portrayed in the news media. Today, the "image" of image has shifted dramatically.

An Audit by Many Other Names

"Image is the overall perception, both internal and external, of an institution," says Robert M. Smith, provost at Slippery Rock University. Some campus officials and consultants prefer the term reputation to convey this larger meaning; others use brand, a word exclusively associated with commercial ventures until fairly recently. "An institution's brand is its personality, psychology, and attitude — as its constituents perceive it," wrote Lapham/Miller executive Richard Plank in "A 'Brand' New Perspective" in the April 2000 CURRENTS. "It is the face by which an institution distinguishes itself from all others."

Combining the word image with the equally problematic word audit compounds the terminology problem. "When you say 'image audit,' some members of the faculty say, 'What do we care about image? We care about substance.' And the 'audit' word itself is kind of scary," says Robert M. Moore, president of Lipman Hearne.

Rae Goldsmith, associate vice president for communications and marketing at the University of Louisville, navigates the semantics by describing the process as "looking in the mirror with two different perspectives. In a communications audit, you're trying to see how you project yourself to others; in an image audit, you're trying to see yourself as others see you."

Guiding Forces 

Two key requirements for conducting an audit successfully are "the will to implement information gleaned from it and adequate resources to get something meaningful out of it," says Martha Harris, senior vice president for university relations at the University of Southern California. "A strong institutional need — more or better students, an upcoming fund-raising campaign, a new president who wants to get off to a good start — generally stimulates both will and resources."

When Goldsmith worked at Central Michigan University in the 1990s, "we had solid student recruitment results," she says. "But we faced growing competition and a need to reconsider the makeup of the recruitment pool. When administrators started saying, 'We need to be marketing ourselves better' and 'We need to improve our image,' it was the perfect opportunity to help the university realize we couldn't improve an image we didn't understand.

"We proposed restructuring our fairly traditional public relations office to include an emphasis on marketing. Our proposal included a modest request for ongoing funding to conduct image research that would become the basis for our integrated marketing initiatives."

At Washington State University, a change in leadership and a new strategic planning initiative served as catalysts for an audit, says Mary Gresch, director of marketing communications. "Our audit began during the transition between presidents and continued under the strong leadership of our current president," she says.

Often an institution's board will call for an audit. "Boards tend to be populated by business people who are used to having quantitative and qualitative research when their own businesses prepare to open a new market or offer a new product or service," Moore says. "So when a campus announces plans for a new program, trustees will ask what research has been done to support such an investment."

Too often, he adds, the answer is that campus officials make such a decision because faculty members recommended adding the program, not because they have data supporting it.

The practice of integrated marketing also resonates with board members. "They're very interested in the links among branding, research, and strategy," says Stamats Communications Senior Vice President Bob Sevier. Image audits help establish those links.

Although a specific goal — increasing admissions, trimming the budget, preparing for a campaign, or launching a new program, for example — might provide the initial incentive for an audit, "analysis has to cut across departmental lines," says Bob Brock, president of Educational Marketing Group. "If you look at conducting an audit for one area in isolation, I guarantee you'll make mistakes."

What the Audit Should Cover

Clear objectives are essential. "You make the most of research by focusing on what you want it to do," Gresch says.

Because few institutions can afford to conduct a comprehensive audit of every market segment in which they might have an interest, Moore suggests that campus leaders begin with two questions: What do they need to accomplish, and what do they need to learn so they can do so?

Sometimes advancement officers don't know where to start. In such cases, Moore asks clients to imagine their successes over a five-year span. "You have to balance priorities and then construct a research program to reach those markets." An audit might examine several distinct markets: prospective students, parents, donors, alumni, and legislators, for example.

Further, those conducting an audit should gather information in three categories: internal, which helps define an institution's capacity and vision — what it is and what it strives to be; external, which reveals how outsiders view an institution; and competitive, which shows how a campus compares with its peer institutions.

Much of this information-gathering entails examining the messages an institution sends and how people receive them. But that's not all your audit should involve.

"Most image audits focus on how messages are received and don't look at the systems creating them," Sevier says. "You also need to know if you're well-staffed and well-organized and if you have sufficient budget and capability" to carry out necessary strategies. Omitting these factors is dangerous, he says, because communicators might fail to recognize the real source of a problem.

Also, don't overlook data from other institutional research. "At Louisville, we rely heavily on existing research because there is a survey process already in place as part of accreditation," Goldsmith says. "We supplement this information with smaller surveys more specifically tied to our integrated marketing goals."

Still, while existing research may inform some parts of an audit, it may not be comprehensive enough. "We find that [existing research] often doesn't tell enough about how perceptions have been established," says Lipman Hearne's Moore. "If people think your institution is superior to another, how did they get that message? Word of mouth? The viewbook? The Web site? Conversely, if prospective students or donors went someplace else, where did you lose them? You want to be able to manage perception as much as you can, so you need to know how that perception is created."

Conducting the Audit

Although each institution must find the approach that works best given its goals and resources, hiring a consultant can give the audit process objectivity, instill perspective, keep it from becoming self-serving, and provide an impartial voice among competing campus factions. "For us, the consultant's role was to ask the tough and necessary questions, to identify the issues, and to make recommendations," Gresch says.

"Granted, there is always the problem of bringing in people who don't understand your institution's subtleties and don't know its stories," says Slippery Rock's Smith, "but if your consultant does a good job and acquires objective data, you can re-analyze the data on your own later, with campus idiosyncrasies in mind."

Depending on the number of audience segments campus communicators want to survey and the degree of sophistication they can bring to bear when analyzing audit results, they can expect to spend between $10,000 and $100,000 and eight to 12 weeks on an audit conducted by an outside firm. This fee should include the consultant's immersion in the institution's history, culture, and current programs; development of research instruments; analysis of research; and most important, recommendations — the true deliverables of any audit. Also, be sure to consider the often considerable indirect costs of assigning staff to an audit instead of keeping them focused on their other duties.

Goldsmith suggests an alternative to hiring a consultant. "Many institutions have faculty or academic centers that conduct marketing or social-service surveys as part of their mission. Often these offices can conduct your surveys at a reasonable cost," she says.

The disadvantage to this approach is that an internally conducted audit can have external credibility problems; however, she adds that such an audit can have great internal credibility, which can be particularly useful if the advancement office intends to use results only in-house.

In any case, Goldsmith points out that it's important for an institution to maintain control of the direction of the audit. The on-campus project director must understand institution goals and how to conduct and analyze surveys. "He or she doesn't have to be a statistician but should be able to understand the value and limitations of information gathering and analysis — and be able to articulate these to others," Goldsmith says.

Getting Campus Buy-In

Because an audit requires input from so many people in so many areas, it's important to gain support for the effort from individuals and groups throughout the community. Campus constituents are not likely to cooperate with a project they think is a waste of time and resources or will benefit only a single office.

Brenda Barham Hill, CEO of the Claremont University Consortium and former vice president for planning and research at Scripps College, says one way to secure buy-in is to make it clear to the campus community that the audit has strong support from the top. "Having the president say an audit is going to happen sometimes is the only way it will."

Communications and marketing experts also recommend creating a cross-campus group to shepherd the audit. "An existing integrated marketing committee with broad campus representation is ideal," Goldsmith says. This group can gather input from the administration and various constituencies, frame the goals of the audit, and work with the consultants or campus personnel who are conducting it. The group also can help communicate results and recommendations.

Sevier agrees that key audiences such as faculty, students, and alumni should be involved in determining the audit's initial direction. He warns, however, against sending a message that implies to all of these groups that they will be involved in tactical decisions.

For campus constituents who need to be convinced of an audit's value, visual symbols — although only one element of image overall — can provide an attention-getting example of the need to create a cohesive, comprehensible public "face." "When we got a new admissions director, he assembled all the publications produced by USC and its schools," Harris says. "He laid them out in rows in a large meeting hall. This was more 'shock treatment' than strategic inquiry, but it helped us appreciate the magnitude of the problem we had to solve to create a sense that USC was one university, not a bunch of fiefdoms in competition with one another. The process gave us the ammunition we needed to launch a full-scale audit."

Another way to win over potential naysayers, Sevier says, is to "work backwards." Rather than announcing an image audit, he suggests asking faculty and staff their thoughts about the benefits of a strong image. They are likely to note such benefits as better recognition of the institution among their peer groups, more effective recruiting, increased retention, and lower costs for raising money, among others. "Then communications officers should ask what it would take to build such an image. Even faculty and staff who don't appreciate marketing vocabulary will understand the value of a strong institutional image," Sevier says.

From Results to Recommendations

Audit findings can vary depending on a campus's sophistication and size, political underpinnings and competitors, and the marketplace. The results help assess the strengths and deficiencies of staff, resources, and plans.

But the most important part of a final report is its recommendations. "This is where the consultant is worth his or her fee … or not. You're buying the cure, not just the diagnosis. If your institution has developed structures that are impeding its goals, recommendations may include adding and redefining positions or changing reporting structures," says EMG's Brock. "If the institution's strategic planning is diffuse, the recommendations should deliver a structure for strategic planning. They need to be broadly disseminated, and the people who are directly affected should be in the room."

He adds this caution, however: "It's never a straight line from recommendation to conversion. The real work begins with how best to execute strategies, given an institution's limitations."

That said, recommendations are only as good as the data they're built on. "Without solid data, everything is suspect and up to the vagaries of opinion rather than fact," Sevier says.

"You will most likely get some results that aren't what you had hoped to hear," Goldsmith says. "You'll also find some things that will pleasantly surprise you. Just remember that once you promote the positive results, someone is bound to ask about the rest of the story." Don't let this stop you from asking the difficult questions, she says. Rather, develop a communications plan for rolling out the results.

At WSU, Gresch says, "our image audit pointed out that prospective students and their parents had very limited and often incorrect information about our campus — much more so than we would have imagined given that we're one of two major public universities in the state with great visibility." The audit also revealed that top-of-mind awareness — how quickly WSU came into the minds of its target audience members when asked about higher education — was not as high as it should be.

Consequently, the university refocused its major marketing initiatives to emphasize direct contact with high-achieving prospects and a strengthened campus visitation program. The data also made the case for a powerful advertising campaign. The new strategies have been successful, Gresch says. "Our marketing and recruitment strategy has resulted in a 30 percent increase in top students choosing our campus, and our top-of-mind awareness now leads the state with our target audience of 13- to 20-year-olds."

Only Time Will Tell

Once an audit is finished and institutional leaders are acting on the findings, it's time to consider next steps. "Your first audit only tells you where you are at a given point," Goldsmith says. "Assessing image is an ongoing process."

Only after surveying the same audiences again in a few years will communications practitioners know whether their new initiatives are succeeding. Even so, some results may be apparent before a formal re-evaluation. "Institutions with strong images have several key indicators," Sevier says. "Is the institution getting more and better students? Are more dollars being donated? When there's a job opening, are you getting great résumés? Do your best faculty and staff stay? Is morale high? The audit is the beginning, an assessment that will direct a marketing campaign aimed at improving these indices."

This article is from the September 2002 CURRENTS.

Article originally appeared on Andrea Jarrell :: The Power of Strategy and Story (
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