Why strategic communication and public relations should be at the heart of merger and ABR planning

By Ben Verinder (Chalkstream Communications) and Fiona Carthy (Carthy Communications)

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Experience and guidance are clear – if colleges focus on the process rather than the people in their plans for partnerships or mergers, there is a significant risk they will fail or at best, make an already difficult process more fraught. Successful change requires the support and consent of others and that means ­­­meaningful consultation and professional, two-way communication.

Questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘what are our long term aims?’ have communication at their heart and are reliant on consent and support. This can only be gained through healthy relationships and trust which are built on clear, consistent and open communication.

Sadly, poorly managed communication and fragmented messaging is all too common in the world of merger, and this risks seriously undermining the success of the proposals and damaging existing reputations and relationships along the way.

Recent examples include colleges that have brought private partnership discussions prematurely into the public eye before agreements have been met, and merging institutions issuing contradictory public statements, each putting delicate negotiations in peril.

In Scotland we can see the legacy of mergers that failed to achieve the consent of vital stakeholders in the emergence of unprecedented levels of industrial action and discontent.

Analysis of over 135 post-incorporation mergers in England reveals that success requires high-quality leadership at the planning and decision-making stage of merger, which in turn requires absolute clarity on the purpose of the change, and as stated by BIS ‘an ability to reinforce the purpose constantly across all internal and external communications’.

Yet we see colleges treating communication as an after-thought or insufficiently important to require professional attention, manifested as shallow consultation about a narrow range of options or broadcast messaging once a decision has been made.

There needs to be a clear educational and economic case for a partnership or merger proposal (whether that be to merge or remain independent), one that has developed from a realistic assessment of local social and economic need and through genuine consultation with all key stakeholders internal and external alike.

A clear mission needs to be established, particularly when there are conflicting perspectives from each organisation. Internal dialogue needs to take place in private and a clear public position agreed. This is where strategic public relations comes into its own, helping to reconcile the differing agendas and manage internal and external expectations. It helps a new or emerging board or leadership team sift through the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself a symptom of nervousness, to draw a clear conclusion based on the intelligence that matters.

It is also critical to build an understanding of the market position and the reputation of all colleges in the proposal, to start developing a future positioning strategy and that can only be genuinely assessed through impartial research with target audiences.

This assessment of reputation is also useful for area based review submissions, where colleges are seeking to establish a stand-alone position. What is the strength of your brand and reputation? How much brand awareness is there in the community – what will that look like post-merger? As outlined in the Furthering Reputations report in 2009: “Reputation is the product of cumulative activity and evaluation and once earned it has a resilient quality. This is why a good reputation is technically an asset”. How much assessment of the value of reputation is going into discussions and what is this based on? The colleges’ own perceptions or those of the community it serves?

Corporate reputation is closely aligned to the quality of its staff and their commitment to and engagement with the organisation. As most mergers will rely on their middle managers to pave the way – smoothing the clash of systems, processes and cultures into a new harmonised way of operating, open and consultative communication will pave the way to retaining the best people – whereas latent, directive communication could lead to an exodus of quality staff potentially fracturing quality, outputs and in turn community perception and reputation.

And finally to the issue of brand and market position – with a clear mission in place the merged entities can start to form the basis for a new value proposition to the market. This can be achieved either through the maintenance (and development) of existing brands or the introduction of a new brand or group entity.

There is huge opportunity to establish a new, stronger, revitalised market position through merger and the rejuvenation of brand position – but this is needs to be strategically managed and communicated not just through visual representation but more importantly through messaging, online and offline communication and internal values and behaviours.

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Recommended reading

Association of Colleges. (April 2016) An analysis of college merger issues

Calvert, N. and Rosner, M. (2010) Understanding FE mergers and making them work, LSN

Learning and Skills Council and Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick. (2003) An Evaluation of Mergers in the Further Education Sector: 1996-2000

Payne, L. (2008) The Evidence Base on College Size and Mergers in the Further Education Sector, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Roberts, D. and Thompson L. (2009) Furthering Reputations, Knowledge Partnership

Stewart, G. (2003) College Mergers: Lessons to be learned from other sectors, Research in post-compulsory education, Volume 8, Number 3

 

 

 

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Who and what influences choice in further education?

In the past couple of years we have specialised in helping clients study attitude, awareness or behaviours among groups important to their organisation.

We also help clients adapt according to the results of the research.

Projects include studies for further education (FE) colleges – typically focusing on recruitment and seeking to help a client understand and respond to who and what influences student choice in their area.

We’ve found a number of patterns across our work in this field and thought that FE colleagues might find it useful if we set ten of them out here.

  1. The decline of the influencer. In 2012 a national study of students aged 11 to 21 and their parents (in which I was involved) indicated that parents exerted a high level of influence on student choice of institution[1]. In our subsequent studies on behalf of colleges – as the agency YouthSight suggests in relation to university applicants – the influence of other people on post-16 student choice of place of study appears to be in general decline. In our latest study (of a 3000+ population of higher education applicants to a large GFE) just under half of respondents said they had not been influenced by anyone. Where third parties do influence choice, mum and dad and family friends most commonly top the rankings.
  1. The rise of search. Online search is overtaking the prospectus as the channel applicants find the most useful for finding out about a prospective place of study. This shift and trend #1 are probably linked – rather than asking or expecting advice from friends or family on study options, students are more commonly actively searching online for institutions which fit their requirements. So colleges need to know what information potential applicants are looking for in order to make an informed decision, and ensure it is easy to find on their website. Online search is commonly also the most useful channel for applicants who have yet to commit to an institution and want more information – so keeping a website up to date may be the most effective ‘keep warm’ tactic for any college. Online search, by the way, dominates where full cost recovery provision is concerned. Social media discussions, adverts and newspaper articles are typically cited as the least useful sources of information about a prospective place of study. 
  1. The power of course. A good reputation for teaching is, typically, the third most important factor for 16+ students considering where to study. Locational factors – where a college is based and the transport network which feeds it – are commonly cited as the second most important factor. Course most regularly tops the rankings. Students may compromise on sports opportunities, on the time taken to travel, on the way buildings look or the facilities within them, but they are unlikely to make concessions on the subject and type of course they want to study. Which highlights the importance of teaching excellence and market research for colleges – while providing another depressing piece of evidence for those of us concerned about the black hole that is schools-based careers advice. 
  1. Gender differences in influence. Where we have explored this issue, we’ve seen notable differences in the way males and females make decisions about where to study. In crude summary, female applicants to further education courses are more discerning – they commonly take more factors into account than males when considering their options. They are also more likely to be informed in their institutional choice by school or college tutors than their male counterparts, who are more inclined to be influenced by friends. 
  1. Hedging bets. This phenomenon first came to light in a study we undertook of a population of 7000 students who applied to a college but enrolled elsewhere in early 2013. 20% of applicants considered the college as a ‘back-up’ choice. In the majority of cases, according to qualitative responses, they were encouraged by school tutors to apply to more than one institution. There appears to be a corresponding general growth in the number of institutions applied to – but we haven’t adequately tested that proposition to be sure. There are ramifications for conversion rates here, and related expectations about the effectiveness and performance of recruitment activities. 
  1. Last-minute change of mind. In the same piece of research, 10% of applicants changed their mind about the course they wanted to study in the period between applying to college/s and enrolling. This change of mind lead to a change of institution (because, as we have seen, course is the most important factor in choice, and in the case of this 10% they – rightly or wrongly – didn’t think the college in question delivered the course they had now settled on). Which means that colleges need to make applicants aware of the broad range of courses available (or at least of the mechanism for finding out), even if an applicant seems pretty sure about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. 
  1. Uncommon applications. Looking for ‘insurance’ offers may sound more like the behaviour of a university applicant than a prospective college student. Whereas university applicants have a system in place – UCAS – to standardise those applications, that is not the case for (non-HE) college applicants. The differences in the application processes between colleges and schools can be confusing, and the more students ‘shop around’ the more puzzling it can be. In one study among non-enrolled applicants, a significant minority expressed low levels of awareness of the particular hoops – application, assessment, interview or audition – that constituted the application process according to course type. Setting out the college processes – including what applicants can expect in terms of entry requirements, timings for interviews and communications from the college – in ways that are easy for applicants to understand is clearly important.
  2. Silence is goodbye.  We are sometimes asked to test (via mystery shopping or quantitative research) if open day, interview and enrolment practices are up to scratch. Where colleges most commonly ‘lose’ applicants it is in the period between application and interview, when the responsibility for a prospective student is passed from (say) a central recruitment or marketing department to administrators in a school or course area responsible for booking interviews. Where there is a delay in an application (say, prior to interview) most students do not follow this up – they assume they have not got a place. Similarly, where there is no response after an interview, most have been offered a place at another college or school, and they don’t chase the college in question either but apply elsewhere. The impact of poorly managed communications is clear.
  1. But goodbye may not be forever. In two separate studies this year (2014) we’ve asked non-enrolled applicants whether they would be interested in hearing about courses at the institution they rejected for another. In both cases a significant minority said they would. A majority of alumni, asked a similar question, were interested in further study. When applicants reject an institution in favour of another it does not necessarily mean they have a low opinion of that college – it may be a case of right place, wrong time. Or that the course they wanted to study was not available. These results also hint that FE alumni networks may be significant and (as yet) overlooked sources of recruitment.
  2. The timing of communications matter. The majority of our education research is undertaken among groups of students aged between 16 and 21. We have experimented with different methodologies depending on the client, the geography and types of students. Generally speaking, research is most fruitful when we’re contacting respondents by mobile phone between 5pm and 8pm. Where colleges are able to raise an expectation among student groups that they may be asked to take part in research, the response rate is (much) better. There are ramifications for data management and protection and communications planning here.

[1]Parent Power Dominates Education Choices’ – Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education and Skills Group.