Cas Carter: Wellington College fiasco exposes school's branding

A protest by students in response to the events at Wellington College and St Patrick's Silverstream.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

A protest by students in response to the events at Wellington College and St Patrick's Silverstream.

OPINION: I've watched the issue of the social media post by the Wellington College students with appalled fascination.

Every business has a brand that must be managed - a school is no exception.

The reputation of the prestigious Wellington College just took a big hit when two Year 13s made private Facebook posts about females such as: "If you don't take advantage of a drunk girl, you're not a true WC boy."

Cas Carter says the school has a lot of work to do to repair its reputation and brand.
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Cas Carter says the school has a lot of work to do to repair its reputation and brand.

Other students from the school were upset and made the posts public.

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Wellington College has a good reputation and has worked hard to build its brand as a school of academic excellence.

My heart goes out to the staff and school's Board of Trustees who have been hit by the subsequent media storm.

If you think of a school as a business – and they are multi-million dollar businesses – then the students are a product upon which the school is judged.

But in this case, it's a particularly unpredictable product and customer which comes in the shape of teenage boys who may not always make good decisions.

Are secondary schools ticking time bombs as they are by function full of teenagers?

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And if so, how does a school manage its reputation with these volatile stakeholders?

A fundamental way is through the culture it creates.

Like any organisation, the values that are instilled internally help to build the culture and, in turn, that helps reputation.

For a school, those values must include respect. Values are not just words in a document, they must be demonstrated top to bottom through everything an organisation does. This is how a brand or reputation is built.

The student's comments did not only reek of violence and distaste, but they put their school at the centre by claiming students not engaging in this behaviour weren't true 'WC' boys. This implied there was a culture inherent in the school community that encouraged this attitude.

Wellington College's quick moves to distance itself from the boy's comments helped demonstrate they would not tolerate or condone these views.

The subsequent suspensions and bans from top level sports and arts went some way to reinforcing this.

But it was a tricky public relations line to tread – between distancing the school from the issue and looking after the students and their parents who, no doubt, needed some care and management too.

The incident also once again demonstrated the good and the bad of social media. Teenage misbehaviour is magnified millions of times in this 'free for all' media. So too is the response.

Wellington College would not have had to do any stakeholder research to be aware of the outrage from young women and men throughout the Wellington/Kapiti region and beyond.

But the incident also created a platform to talk about some very serious issues and gave young women a voice, including protesting at parliament.

Who's to know if these issues haven't always been around? Social media – for all its dangers - also provides a platform for discussion.

Maybe it is our society's 'brand' which should be scrutinised.

It's been a tough few weeks for Wellington College and there will be much rebuilding to do.

If the actions of these students do not reflect the culture of Wellington College, it seems unfair that its reputation has been tarnished. The school will need to look to inside to ensure the culture they want to instil reaches every student.

With constant reinforcing of positive values, particularly inside, but also out, in time it will rebuild its brand.

If there is ever any issue where good comes out of bad – let it be this one.

- Cas Carter is a marketing and communications specialist.

 - Stuff

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