If you’re working in business school or university communications you’d be forgiven for sighing when you see that this blog post is dedicated to the topic of rankings.
After all, it seems that barely a month goes by without a new league table of the world's supposedly top institutions being published by a prominent media outlet.
In the first six months of this year, for the business school sector alone, we have seen the Financial Times publish six separate rankings across MBA, MSc Finance and Exec Ed, with three further reports still in the pipeline, The Economist too has recently published the first of two tables for this year. On a wider scale, QS is on track to publish a total of 13 separate rankings this year across business and higher education, which review institutions’ programmes, subjects, career specialisms, graduate employability, geographical regions and even best cities in which to study.
In addition to each of these we will see rankings published by outlets such as Times Higher Education, US News & World Report, Bloomberg BusinessWeek – the list goes on. And this doesn’t even include the many many titles which will go on to analyse, compare and contrast the results of each.
With so many tables competing for potential applicants’ attention, it can be a full time job for any institution to stay aware of it all – let alone communicate the results to their audiences effectively. And, let’s remember, that business schools and higher education institutions must promote their value and worth through other means (effective public and media relations for example) throughout the year – especially if the rankings are not finding in their favour.
But for all the joys and frustrations they bring, we cannot disregard the importance and influence that rankings hold – nor can we avoid working with them. In-house PR teams are under increasing pressure to intelligently navigate their results and be prepared to either celebrate their wins or justify their disappointments to their Deans, Vice-Chancellors, faculty, students, applicants and alumni community. And then there’s wider engagement to consider…
So how can institutions create a rankings strategy that makes sense? That champions their successes as well as helps to reinforce their values and aspirations to as wide and as relevant an audience as possible?
As industry experts, BlueSky Education works with many international universities and business schools to develop a coherent and sustainable approach to the rankings. Below are some key steps for you to consider:
1. Do your homework
Each ranking operates differently in regards to its criteria and breakdown – meaning they rarely generate the same results. For example, the Financial Times places a significant weight on post-degree salaries and research, while BusinessWeek emphasises student and employer satisfaction, and The Economist highlights career outcomes and internationalism.
Understanding the methodologies of the rankings provides the key to knowing where your school is most likely to do well. And this gives you a few important advantages…
Firstly, you can realistically anticipate your likely place in rankings before they publish, and begin to pull a response strategy together for when the information is released.
Secondly, in the instance where your institution is unlikely to compete for a place among the global elite, or break the top 10, perhaps there are categories or subject areas where you have scored well that can become a focus of your institutional engagement and reputation building going forward.
Understanding how rankings work can also allow you the opportunity to decide whether or not to engage with them in the first place. However, be aware that, whilst it’s never flattering to feature in the lower half of the table, it can be better than failing to appear at all. It can be a lot easier to explain your place at #97 in the FT’s global top 100 than explaining why you didn't get a spot. Journalists and potential applicants (even your alumni) will quickly assume that your exclusion from a ranking is due to your failure to make the cut rather than an active decision not to engage.
So, if you choose to omit your institution from certain rankings, communicate that to your networks and provide a clarity about your overall strategy of engagement.
2. Identify your strengths
Aside of your overall position in a ranking, your institution may have performed well in a specific category of the rankings make-up. These subsections can provide an institution with an opportunity to shine by differentiating themselves from the rest of the list. You may not be able to compete with the Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge set on weighted salary, but you may well be performing on a par – or better! – than them when it comes to networking, diversity of class or faculty, aims achieved, value for money… the list goes on.
Such criteria also provide a more personal touch to your communications strategy. For example – if you’re performing well in the “aims achieved” category you can expand this by engaging your alumni to share their success stories with the media – reinforcing the message to your future applicants.
So, before sharing this good news with the wider media, take the time to gather together material that reinforces the reasons for this success - investments you have made, the focus of your admissions policy or scholarships, new services for students, etc.
In the eyes of a journalist your performance will look all the more credible if they see that it is a result of determined efforts made by the school. It also helps to outline more of a strategy on your part, rather than a happy accident, which gives them a good narrative for a story.
3. Consider the purpose of a press release
So your school climbed one place in the latest ranking. Should you send out a press release to tell the world?
Bear in mind that reporters receive a tsunami of emails announcing the latest rankings success, and those institutions who have performed better than yours will also be alerting the presses. Consider, is your ranking result really news?
As mentioned above, there may well be an underlying reason for your strong performance which could appeal to an editor – especially if your narrative adds into a wider industry trend. So, if you do decide to distribute a press release, remember to include the context behind the numbers, and make sure your school's performance can be seen as part of a bigger picture.
4. Be humble
Remember, what goes up has every chance of coming down. Make the most of the latest results, but be prepared for the day that your institution falls in the rankings and a journalist asks you why.
This is also where my previous point of “doing your homework” becomes invaluable. If you understand how a ranking works you can see how your institution secured its position year on year, and better predict where those falls may occur in future.
5. Keep up with your alumni
Given the sheer number of rankings that want to survey students and alumni, it is easy for alumni to feel a sort of rankings fatigue, and disengage from the process. So if you are focusing on specific rankings, it helps to make alumni aware of which ones they should extend their efforts towards, and share your gratitude for their participation.
6. Think beyond the rankings table
The numbers paint a very black and white picture of an institution, whereas editorial analysis of the table provides a chance for nuance. The majority of rankings produced by the media are accompanied by a selection of articles which not only explain the methodology and make-up of the table, but also allow exploration into the programme or type of institutions they are rating. Such editorial content presents institutions with a great opportunity to lead discussions and highlight their expertise on a very high profile platform.
Bear in mind that such articles are published in line with the rankings, so are likely to be written in the weeks (or months!) before a ranking table is released. Even though you will not, at this stage, know how your institution has fared, to be in with a chance of editorial inclusion, you need to think well in advance about relevant news from your school, response to industry trends, interesting student and alumni profiles, engaging opinion from the Dean or Programme Director, or class data etc. that might make a journalist’s ears prick up.
Whilst few institutions can rule them all, there is boundless opportunity, beyond the numbers, for institutions to make their voices heard. The more intelligent you can be with your response the better.
We can certainly help your institution to break down the numbers and uncover a narrative that works best for you. If you’d like to find out more about how we could help you, please do get in touch.
Kerry is the Head of Practice at BlueSky Education and a former BBC journalist.
Recognised in the graduate management education arena as a leading authority on communications for the industry, Kerry has more than a decade of experience in the media and public relations.
Originally published October 2017, updated July 2022