Higher education has plenty of big-time problems today, from falling enrollment and rising student debt to admission scandals and sports corruption. Beyond hurting the reputations of individual schools, these problems could undermine support for academia more broadly. So it’s critically important for universities and colleges to double down on building (or rebuilding) their relationships with stakeholders.
Recently, I had the chance to share the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report with more than 100 communications professionals at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In addition to my role at Edelman, I am an adjunct professor and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at the DePaul University’s College of Communication. Pulling from the conversation during the University of Minnesota presentation, as well as my experience working in academia, I have highlighted three findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer that could help boost universities’ reputation even in tough times:
1. Drive Trust Through Transparent Communications
Over the past five years, according to federal data analyzed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 1,200 college campuses in the United States have been shuttered, largely after funding losses. To avoid that same fate, schools need to maintain the support of their financial backers—tuition-paying students (and their families), governments, donors, investors and corporate and philanthropic partners.
One of the best ways to keep them on their side, based on the Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings, is for the president (academia’s CEO equivalent) to be upfront about troubling matters and what the institutions is doing to address problems; 71 percent of people agree that it’s important for their own CEO to respond to challenging times. Ignoring an issue or trying to spin it will only lead to greater distrust and even outright antagonism when stakeholders discover they’ve been left out or deceived. The importance of timely candor goes for good news, too. Share with stakeholders early and often.
2. Lead on Issues that Matter
The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that, globally, 73 percent of people look up to organizations that improve the economic and social conditions of their communities. This is particularly salient to academic institutions. Given their school pride, employees, students, prospective students, partners and alumni alike want to hear what their college or university is doing to make lives better, and how their individual contributions are helping.
An academic institution should align the economic and social issues it chooses to take on with its values and mission. Pretenders don’t get class credit.
3. Activate “Surround Sound” of Advocate Voices
Higher education has a huge built-in advantage over many other major organizations. Of the four groups that the Trust Barometer identifies as the most credible advocates for an institution, three are fundamental to higher education: academic experts, a person alike yourself (students, alumni and parents of both groups), and employees.
Academic institutions will reach a lot more people—and reach them more effectively—if a message is amplified by a loyal army of ambassadors. In addition to sharing stories with these influential proponents, schools need to treat them like the essential partners they are.
Given the nest of problems it has, higher education needs to invest in trust. What schools put in today will build the endowment of tomorrow.
Joseph Tateoka is vice president, Integrated Business Marketing, Chicago.