Raising business school brand awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic

What does the media want now and how can business schools provide this whilst raising their brand awareness? Account Director Stephanie Mullins, from specialist business education PR consultancy BlueSky Education, shares her thoughts. 

I recently co-hosted a live podcast that invited business school professionals to speak about communications and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic was having. We talked about it during the event but I’m keen to address a topic raised by one of our attendees about raising brand awareness at this time, which I think will really resonate with other business schools.

The comment came from Tomaso Eridani, Press Officer at Bocconi University.

He said: “Italy, unfortunately, was on the front lines, one of the first countries where everything really escalated. So, here at Bocconi, it’s been since the end of February. Now, for two months, our communication was focused 99% on Coronavirus – communicating what’s been happening regarding the switch to online teaching, getting out our research on the topic, our experts in the newspapers commenting, and we’ve done stories of all our alumni who are working on the front line, etc., etc.

“And we were just starting to sort of debate internally whether it’s time to move on a bit, start talking about other things, but is there any interest in the media for other topics?”

Offering expert insights

The initial tactic that Tomaso mentions is one that many business school communications teams, and their PR agencies, rightfully took up and continue to pursue. It’s an incredibly effective way to increase a school’s visibility at this time.

I decided to speak with an expert for further insight on why this is. Antonella Moretto, the Associate Dean for Open Programs at MIP Politecnico di Milano business school in Milan, a professor of supply chain management and a doctor of philosophy, explained that COVID-19 has undermined personal beliefs.

“In this uncertain context, people rely more on science and expertise in all fields. In the business world, business schools play a key role, reinforcing the concept of quality training based on professionalism and continuous innovation – increasing brand awareness could reinforce this message. Outstanding quality in teaching, opportunities of learning for all, keeping innovating, exploitation of the digital tools in a democratic way and a role of support to the community are key issues of the business school’s role, to reinforce their brand awareness through a tangible contribution,” she said.

It’s clear that the insights, support and advice that business school experts have been offering to the media have given their brands a boost, and this is likely to continue to be an effective strategy throughout the crisis and beyond as we navigate a post-COVID world.

Benoît Anger, Associate Dean for Corporate Development and Communication at NEOMA Business School, explains further; “In 15 years, Higher Education, under the pressure of increased global competition, has become a brand market. Today, more than ever, institutions must rely on their brand and their reputation to meet the many challenges imposed by COVID. But in the midst of a crisis, how can we continue to make our brands shine? In a context synonymous with worry, a brand must be meaningful, inspiring and positive. Whatever the channel, it must defend an authentic, constructive and confident discourse. It must also remain faithful to the excellence that defines it, through the insights provided by teachers, precious in such an uncertain context.

“Finally, it must avoid the promotional speeches unsuited to the context, or even worse, that of de-communication which would simply make the brand disappear. It is this return to authentic and founding values that will enable institutions to emerge stronger from this pandemic.”

What do journalists want now?

In order to respond to the second half of Tomaso’s comment, to further bolster a business school’s brand at this vital time, is it time to start talking about other things? Is there any interest in the media for other topics?

The answer is yes, but it’s not easy. We’ve seen this absolute blanket coverage of COVID-19. While many of the initiatives taken by communications professionals have been very reactive and responsive to that, we are definitely starting to see an appetite for either more positive stories or ones that are more speculative, looking towards the future. In international, national and trade specific press across the globe, much of these speculative stories will likely examine the impact on industries, from fashion and retail to tourism and leisure. It’s now that business schools can shape the stories in the areas where they’d like to be seen – albeit still in relation to COVID.

As a simple example, a school that wants to be known for entrepreneurship could suggest stories to the press around ways entrepreneurs can cope with the current crisis. By positioning themselves as an authority on this topic at this time, they can be seen as the expert in this field. The aim is to encourage any budding entrepreneurs to apply for their programmes and look at the school more closely – but it’s ultimately raising their brand and positioning themselves where they want to be seen.

Beyond this, COVID will most likely dominate the news cycle, but is there a growing appetite for other stories? Richard Fletcher, business editor at The Times (of London), said in a recent webinar that in the last few weeks readers only wanted COVID news but now this is beginning to shift slightly.

It’s how business schools will explore those 15 or 20% of other stories that will also be key.

What’s the goal?

Ultimately, remember the goals of your communications and marketing efforts. The pandemic has changed many things but it has not changed these goals. Schools who want to be strategic – particularly in what they want their brand to be known for – can adapt to this new media landscape.

Keep the big picture in mind. Consider how your institution’s goals can be met through communications initiatives now, even though we’re dealing with an evolving and challenging media landscape, and leverage this for the benefit of the institution long-term.