The importance of PR to multi-academy trusts
About the author
James Clarke prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
As the issue of academy schools continues to be discussed in the sector and national press, the importance of winning over public support grows. While the majority of the focus of academy schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) has to be on the children and the education they are receiving, leaders should neglect PR at their own peril.
While the current government has made its support known for academy schools[i], public opinion paints a less rosy picture. A YouGov tracker on the subject found that in November 2020, only 24% of respondents were supportive of the creation of more academy schools. This was in comparison to 33% being opposed to the creation of more academies, while 43% were unsure.[ii]
The lack of outright support for more academies shows the scale of the battle that MATs are facing as numbers continue to grow, but to address them we have to understand why it exists.
Despite the number of multi-academy trusts that improve schools, help students achieve greater successes, and play a key role within the communities they are based, it’s unlikely you’ll hear or read about any of this.
Instead, you’re more likely to see articles and hear stories about a ‘scandal’ or a ‘crisis’ that a MAT is facing.
Why? Due to it being more likely to be given attention by the general public.
But by making sure PR is given importance and, ultimately, bringing PR expertise in-house, a MAT can improve its issues and crisis management and help protect its reputation, therefore avoiding trending on Twitter for the wrong reasons.
Arguably one of the most high-profile failures in this context is Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT)[iii], which collapsed due to controversial financial difficulties and was the focus of a BBC investigation.[iv]
Many of the issues that WCAT suffered can be seen across other MATs, leading to negative coverage in the media and reputational harm. So, what are the recurring issues?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, highly contentious issues in education are usually finance-related. Pay for example is an issue that those against academies in general are very vocal of as high salaries take away from the resources available to students and staff to further improve the education being provided.
In particular, the salaries of CEOs and senior executive-level employees are a constant issue, particularly for academy schools. Reports that focus on these and other financial aspects of a MAT are regularly issued, like the Kreston Report [v] which analyses the finances of over 360 Trusts, and these need to be monitored.
The pay issue can become headline news though usually if one of two things happen. The first is if the pay increase occurs at a MAT which is seen to be underperforming and the second is if the pay of a CEO of a small MAT matches that of a larger MAT, numerous times its size.
For example, a single academy Trust in London hit the headlines for paying its CEO over £200,000 [vi]. It was one of eight MATs that the Government sought answers from regarding its salary decisions.[vii]
A MAT in Birmingham faced similar questions earlier this year after its CEO was awarded a pay rise despite the Trust itself facing an almost seven-figure shortfall in its finances.[viii] This led to the MAT suffering from negative stories in the sector, local and national media.
Stories related to financial mismanagement and governance issues are easy for MATs to be targeted by the media and these are avoidable. For example, a MAT was investigated by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) after spending over £2000 on a wellbeing conference and spa break for senior staff.[ix]
More serious stories regarding ESFA investigations are picked up in the sector pressxxi, causing a MAT reputational harm. Adhering to procurement protocolsxii is an internal issue a MAT has the power to control, similar to a MAT spending ‘outside the rules’, another issue which is on the rise according to reports by independent auditors.[xiii]
What do these issues have in common? They are all internal and they stem from decisions the MAT is itself making and therefore can stop making.
So, what can a MAT do to improve its issues management, better preparing itself for a potential crisis and protecting its reputation.
Get a structure in place
An important step in improving your MATs issues management is to look at your structure.
Andrew Griffin, one of the leading voices on this issue, lays out the need for organisations to ensure they have their issues management structure, or what Griffin calls ‘reputational risk architecture’, in place to confront the issues which may pose reputational risk.[xiv]
This involves people from different sections of the organisation working together to evaluate a situation. After all, it is when issues go unchecked that they can be triggered into a crisis.[xv]
To adapt this for MATs, let’s go back to the issue of CEO pay. While there may be justification for a pay rise, if an issues management structure is in place and discussions around public opinion on issues like pay are regularly held, then final decisions can be made from a place of more thorough understanding of the current climate.
Simply highlighting the fallout from other MATs over this issue, especially those of similar size to the respective MAT, could be enough to cause the Board to review the situation.
By setting up this monitoring group, led by an in-house PR professional, that reports back to senior-level teams, or even the Board, you can put your MAT in a better position to navigate the muddy PR waters of an issue.
By avoiding these internal issues, you can avoid a self-made crisis and the reputational damage that comes with it.
Always be scanning
One of the vital components of good issues management is being aware of what the issues are that you and your sector are facing. Therefore, your MAT must engage with the process of horizon scanning.
Adapting it for this context, not only does horizon scanning mean exploring external reputational risks but also exploring the current public opinion related to any potential internal issues, including monitoring reports like the above-mentioned Kreston Report.
The same cross-departmental group mentioned in the preceding point would be meeting regularly to discuss each member’s findings on a respective issue. Led by the PR team, the group would report to the Board so there would always be an ongoing scanning and reporting process.
The obvious line that comes to mind here is ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’ If you are not keeping an eye on the issues you are facing, then do not be surprised when one reaches a critical stage and you find yourself unprepared for action.
Using a recent example from education, the November 2020 announcement by the UK Government that MATs would now face tougher scrutiny on their finances and that the likelihood of MATs being helped out of financial holes by the Government was significantly reduced.xvi
As MATs receive their funding from the central government, this scenario is one that should have been planned for, especially if a MAT was struggling financially.
The group would ask itself; If there was a change in policy regarding finances, how would it play out with us?
From the resulting discussion, the finding could have led to plans being developed that could not only steer the finances in a better direction, hopefully, but from a PR perspective it means messaging could have been developed ahead of any announcement.
Essentially, a MAT could have got out in front of the issue rather than being caught cold by it. For some issues it may also give you the space to become the leader on an issue, if you’ve been forward-thinking enough with your approach.
An important element of this is training your team to be prepared to do their jobs as well as possible, whether that is to develop your in-house PR team to train your staff or looking externally for that service.
In times of calm, the members of the cross-department team need to be trained to be able to perform their duties of horizon scanning properly, however in a crisis the training is even more important.
Those who will be involved in a crisis team need to be trained in the duties they will perform. Arguably the most important are the spokespeople that will be put forward, becoming the face of your MAT.
The MAT CEO is best placed to be used as a sole spokesperson but it is important to have alternatives trained and prepared should the CEO not be available.[xvii]
It is worth noting that recent reports have shown that trust in teachers and the education sector remain high, which is a positive but don’t take this trust for granted.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the first interaction a spokesperson makes, so ensuring they are supported enough to feel comfortable taking it on is vital. Setting out the right tone, message and, if applicable, accepting responsibility is crucial to de-escalating a situation.
Ultimately, you need to avoid becoming the education sector equivalent of BP’s response to the 2010 oil spill disaster [xviii], while striving to come out of with your reputation intact, if not slightly strengthened, similar to Total following the 2012 gas leak in Elgin.[xix]
A two-way stakeholder approach
The Issue Management Council asks us to ‘think of an issue as a gap between your actions and stakeholder expectations’xx, so the task then becomes knowing what the expectations of our stakeholders are.
What you believe you’re known for, you most likely are not. It may be something you preach about internally, but that does not mean it’s being heard externally. By engaging in a two- way stakeholder dialogue approach, you can gain a truer understanding of the external perception of your MAT and its performance.
To try and implement this ensure you are regularly meeting and speaking with your key stakeholders and be sure to keep an up-to date stakeholder list. This will include your political stakeholders, i.e., council representatives and local MP, but stakeholders such as parents of your students, leading local community members and local business groups.
Discussions with these groups, where you actively listen to what they say about you and move past the one-way press release or newsletter system, can provide information which will help inform your positioning and messaging on issues.
Should a crisis hit, then strong relationships with your stakeholders can also be favourable as they can potentially actively support you, either on social media or traditional media, helping your reach and credibility during this time.[xxi]
Be proactive & tell your good news
A key step to implement is a proactive PR campaign. Encourage your academies to share its good news with your PR team or with the local media. A strong, proactive PR campaign can be an insurance policy against crises, so building up relationships with your local media and journalists cannot be underestimated.[xxii]
Despite the globalised nature of the world, according to the Reuters Institute’s 2020 Digital News Report, the websites of the trusted local newspapers manage to reach 44% of people on a weekly basis and remain the top source of news about a particular town or region.[xxiii]
However, don’t limit yourself to just local papers. According to RAJAR, the pandemic has seen the number of listeners for local radio stations risexxiv and OFCOM stated last year that TV remains the most common platform for people wanting to access local news TV.[xxv] So, keep your focus local and spread your good news.
While there is always a risk of an external crisis where the narrative is out of your control and you have to react, these tips should help you to improve your MATs reputation in stable times and help to protect it in times of crisis.
xiv Griffin, A. (2014) Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management : A Handbook for PR and Communications Professionals. London: Kogan Page (PR in Practice), p.33.
xv Griffin, A. (2014) Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management : A Handbook for PR and Communications Professionals. London: Kogan Page (PR in Practice), p.143.
xvii Fearn-Banks, K. (2011) Crisis Communications : A Casebook Approach. New York: Routledge (Communication Series), p.38.
xix Griffin, A. (2014) Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management : A Handbook for PR and Communications Professionals. London: Kogan Page (PR in Practice), p.209.
xxi Freeman and McVea (2005) cited in Alison Theaker, and Heather Yaxley. The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit : An Essential Guide to Successful Public Relations Practice. Vol. Second edition, Routledge, 2017, p.197.
xxii Fearn-Banks, K. (2011) Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach. New York: Routledge (Communication Series), p.27.
xxv https://www.ofcom.org.uk/ data/assets/pdf_file/0013/201316/news-consumption-2020-report.pdf