The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Managing a trust’s reputation in the online, post truth world

School trusts are facing unprecedented reputational challenges in a post truth world. Whilst the requirement for schools to have an online presence is nothing new, the rise of social media combined with the proliferation of misinformation has made reputation management more difficult than ever before. An ill-informed or abusive post by a student, parent or perhaps a disgruntled ex-staff member can rapidly develop into widespread opinion, irrespective of the underlying truth. This process (sometimes referred to as the “availability cascade” or “post truth”) adds to the array of online challenges faced by school leaders, which already include issues such as cyber bullying, online harassment, safeguarding and misuse of school materials. Rapid dissemination of misinformation about school performance and governance and misinformed parental campaigns are becoming ever more common.

Whether and when to take action
These challenges not only increase the importance of online reputation management, but also change the nature of the game. It can be difficult to elucidate the best way to respond. Whilst the speed with which misinformation can spread can necessitate swift action, it can still be prudent to follow the “don’t fuel the fire” mantra. This is particularly so when deciding whether or not to respond to a prolific social media user with a propensity to be carefree with the truth. Likewise, threatening legal action in the wrong circumstances can be seen as heavy handed and cause further damage to the trust’s reputation and brand image. The best advice is therefore to assess online issues promptly, but choose your response wisely.

Public communications
Just as the nature of online reputational challenges are numerous and evolving, so too are the possible means of combatting them, and it is vital to choose the response appropriate to the issue at hand. The best response to parental campaigns regarding, for example, a school’s performance, is usually effective public communications. The nature of the campaign and the degree to which they are founded on legitimate concerns will determine the manner of response. Sometimes publicising more effective updates on a particular situation will do the trick, whilst in other instances a direct response to the parents on the concerns raised may be appropriate. The tone and manner of such communications should reinforce the trust’s values and brand identity.

Take downs
For online content that is abusive, amounts to harassment, is defamatory, outdated, or infringes the trust’s copyright, there are other mechanisms at a school trust’s, or individuals within a trust’s, disposal. Almost all media and social media platforms have abuse reporting mechanisms, with a policy of removing any content that does not accord with their terms of use. This is particularly useful for posts that are clearly abusive or discriminatory towards an individual or group. Where it is difficult to identify the source of the abusive material, it may be possible to force an internet service provider (“ISP”), for example a search engine, to take down the relevant content. This is often referred to as a ‘take down’ notice and derives from rights espoused under EU law. Whether making a direct complaint against an originating website or formal take-down request against an ISP, clearly setting out the basis on which the complaint is made is key to obtaining the desired outcome. Simply pointing to the wording complained of may be insufficient. Formulating the complaint so that it engages with the relevant terms and conditions or legal rights alleged to have been breached is important. Complaints should be prepared with care and precision. The nature of the complaint can also determine the speed of response (for example, in some scenarios ISPs are required to respond to a complaint regarding defamatory content within 2 days).

Whilst the requirement for schools to have an online presence is nothing new, the rise of social media combined with the proliferation of misinformation has made reputation management more difficult than ever before.

Nick Smee

Legal action
Where the perpetrator can be identified and the nature of content is sufficiently serious, the trust should consider whether to take legal action, and take advice if needed. A wide range of possible claims under the laws of England and Wales may be engaged, from harassment, defamation and malicious falsehood, through to copyright infringement and breach of data protection legislation. Whilst issuing legal proceedings can be expensive and attract further unwanted publicity, a robust warning (or “cease and desist”) letter founded on a strong legal basis can be an effective means of drawing a delicate matter to a swift conclusion.

Navigating the fast-evolving post truth online world to successfully manage a school trust’s reputation can be a tricky business. The good news is there are a wide range of tools at hand to assist.

Browne Jacobson LLP is a CST Platinum Partner