Turning around a negative perception

Reaching out to people who don’t like you

Michelle Perkins joined us on the show and discussed how she had been responsible for building relationships with the public at a college which had started to pick up a bad reputation.

To fix the problem she had to build rapport with everyone who wasn’t happy.

Starting the campaign

She realised early on that the people she needed to reach were not the students, who were happy to go wherever their friends went. The problem was with the parents and with the local community.

Parents had been hearing negative messages and because the college was in an urban housing area and the students would congregate around bus stops, the community were not happy either.

There were several elements to the PR campaign she ran.

One element was the usual, social media. Videos were put out showing what was going on at the college, what people were achieving and what new courses were coming up. They pushed to be one of the first colleges to get a new, popular type of course which helped to show the college at the forefront of education.

Next, there were press releases. Developing relationships with the local media meant Michelle could keep putting stories in the local press about the college. She would focus on content which showed how the college was helping the local community in particular.

Physical PR

There was physical PR too.

Open evenings, a staple part of education, was expanded from the typical ‘meet and greets’ to provide an “experience” to people coming in. A carefully planned tour turned the visit into a carefully planned theme park ride. It was designed to hit the right emotions. Parents were taken around a sequence of the most stimulating points such as computer rooms full of life, music rooms full of music, etc. The aim was to fill parents’ senses with stimulation.

And then the goal was to keep them there long enough to get a human to talk to them.

The logic was that after the tour that human could tackle any remaining concerns. If they left too quickly they could easily go away not having been converted.

At the simplest level, there was plenty of availability of free tea and biscuits. Everyone would have something to hold and finish before they left. Meanwhile, teachers and the headteacher would work the room.

The community

That was the parents. The other problem was the community.

How was Michelle to reach out to people who had no reason to come to the college?

Some of the criticism Michelle felt was very unfair. As she said in the episode, “some of them (students) would come from underprivileged areas and it was very sad to see some of the comments.

“We had a couple of people once mention that we should bring back hanging for the way students acted outside of colleges.”

But Michelle would go on the student’s defence. She would point out they are just trying to get home.

“I would reply to every single comment. I would make a nice reply. I would always stand up for the students. I would never apologize to them because they weren’t doing anything wrong. If they were, then obviously we’d pull it up on it.”

The approach worked in the same way that influencers Sailing La Vagabond fought back. It gave other people permission to start defending the students too.

As Michelle explained, “Another woman comes on and she says, I was waiting for the same bus and they all moved out of my way and let me get on the bus first.”

Some people accepted the invitation to come to the college. When they did they would be invited in for tea and coffee and shown around the college. Michelle made sure that when they arrived they were treated as welcome guests, not dismissed as troublemakers who needed to be silenced.

And it worked. The numbers went up and up and the college became one of the leading colleges in the area.

So what are the takeaways?

  • Know who you are trying to reach. In Michelle’s case, it was the parents and the community, not the students.
  • Get a relationship with the media who reach the people you want to reach. Whether that is the local press, industry news or influencers in your space.
  • Embrace critics rather than trying to shut them. Try to turn around their views by demonstrating how they were wrong. You may even turn them into your supporters.
  • Reframe criticism, not in order to attack back but to explain why it’s happening.
  • Don’t be afraid to defend the point. It may give others permission to join your cause.

Photo by Josie Stephens: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-s-hands-23008/