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“Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is; the tree is the real thing.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

A higher education institution’s legitimacy hinges on its reputation, an inherently subjective measure of an organization’s accumulated image as perceived by all its stakeholders. It is particularly important for colleges and universities because education is an intangible process for which students make a major leap of faith to invest in, graduating with the school’s acquired reputation on their CV’s. Reputation is a socially shared impression, a general consensus of expected performance based on past actions. As social media creates exponentially more sharing and receiving of information about an organization, reputations can rapidly take shape and have the potential to be challenged.

Schools are still adjusting to this new environment in which reputations are increasingly important and yet beyond their control. This networked generation of prospective students is more inclined to trust the opinions of anonymous peers on the internet rather than official communications, requiring a shift away from traditional marketing strategy. Advertising your brand too heavily risks creating the impression that you need the hard sell due to a lack of intrinsic quality or established reputation. As noted in a previous post about student recruitment, 75% of this year’s frosh used social media to make their enrolment decision, relying on the unsolicited opinions of respected third parties. Leveraging this influential medium necessitates “social listening” or brand monitoring to evaluate your initiatives and to know when, where and how to respond.

Social Listening

Social media monitoring is an ongoing process to find and better understand opportunities and stakeholders. The first step is knowing who your audience is and which sites they prefer. U of Admissions Marketing provides a useful list of mostly U.S. student forums, review sites, and other social media sources where you can check your reputation and accuracy of data. There are several online tools available to help monitor your school’s reputation so that you may appropriately respond and qualify the tone of conversation. Google Alerts are a quick way of delivering relevant “search query” results to your inbox.

Mention allows you to monitor millions of sources in 42 languages to ensure you don’t miss anything about your institution published on social networks, news sites, forums, blogs or other web pages. You can receive and react to filtered, organized and prioritized information on-the-go. Their free plan gets you 250 mentions monthly with real-time social alerts of two keywords.

HootSuite offers many solutions for managing communications, including the Gmail app, which puts all of your social network activity and emails into one view so you can monitor all your latest Twitter, Facebook and other feeds from one central dashboard. The ViralTag app for Pinterest allows you to easily schedule, share and analyze your pins on the dashboard, and the Vidcaster app lets you quickly distribute videos across all your social networks while tracking engagement with analytics. Their newest Retweet Visibility tool shows you who has retweeted your social content, enabling new possibilities of connection with your community.


Engaging your community means first understanding the conversations that matter most and identifying the key influencers. On average, 1% of a site’s audience generates 20% of all its traffic by sharing its content or links. Measuring user behavior with Google Analytics can deliver insights regarding the interconnectedness of your social media networks and identify potential keywords that are most relevant to your audiences.

Strategic Moderation and Policies

To maintain the value of social media channels, they must remain as authentic and independent as possible. Most schools would rather allow students to post honest negative feedback than to risk accusations of censorship by intervening. However, establishing an official moderation protocol can limit the possibility of forum abuse while clarifying expectations for both administration and students. Schools generally have guidelines about respectful behavior but defining your rules explicitly and sticking to your guns will prevent potential threats from reaching crisis level.

Begin by briefing all moderators about the politics and dynamics of the online community, defining the limits of permitted language and content. For example, disruptive users may resort to the following behavior:

  • Post bombing: Publishing identical content repeatedly to jam up the wall or newsfeed of a social network of forum
  • Link dropping: Posting a link with no introduction or attempt to provide context
  • Off topic posting: Dropping links to completely unrelated material in an attempt to disrupt the exchange
  • Personal profiling: Digging online to find personal information on other users and posting it in an attempt to make them feel exposed and vulnerable

Consistency is integral when dealing with members of the community who overstep the bounds. Will they be warned, suspended or banned from the forum? Discuss how far topics can be stretched before it may be necessary to tactfully bring discussions back on point. Define which situations are “sensitive” and will require urgent response and a policy for alerting a key decision-maker when published material is potentially damaging to the school’s reputation. Take decisive action with a passionless voice to avoid escalating potential conflicts. Before deleting inappropriate content, take a screenshot to later justify the decision, if necessary.

Online community managers should have ready access to the answers of frequently asked questions and the relevant contacts for retrieving further information. The challenge is to balance real-time social media marketing with conservative approval processes, ensuring intuitive policies exist for proactive response to transgressors. It is always preferable if a student chooses to correct negative comments rather than intervention from the institution, and a team of official student bloggers can help to balance a school’s overall portrayal.

Example: Carleton University includes guidelines on its website for students using social media, warning of the perils of “drunk Facebooking” and other common problems. Resources like these help to prevent reputation compromising activity from occurring in the first place.


While brand management is controlled within the resources you own, reputation management occurs in the territory owned by students, parents and other interested parties. Schools can pay attention to what is said about them but it is ultimately impossible to control everything. What can be done is to promote positive content and satisfy stakeholders as much as possible with quality service. Colleges and universities with better reputations typically require less marketing expenditures while being able to charge higher fees, recruit better employees and students, and earn the trust of the community. This standard of integrity is the goal of any organization.

How has your school approached reputation management?