Can savvy school marketing soothe parental anxiety?

As principals navigate an increasingly competitive school environment, they need to be aware of the emotions that are driving parents, says a social commentator, author and lecturer.
Jane Caro has appeared on Channel Seven's Sunrise, ABC television's Q&A and as a regular panellist on The Gruen Transfer. She also sits on the board of NSW Public Education Foundation.
Caro told The Educator that while principals are educators and not marketers, they must understand the emotions that are driving parents if they wish to keep their schools competitive.
“The way to do this is generally what happens in primary schools already – lots of kids doing lots of great, creative, colourful, fun stuff; choirs, art, bands, performances, student gardens – all this is catnip to parents,” she said.
“Secondary school principals need to be aware that they need to soothe anxiety in their marketing messages. This is why perfectly fine public schools are automatically behind the eight ball.”
Don’t attempt to be ‘a poor man’s private school’
Caro said public schools cannot compete with private schools over “the obvious things that soothe parental anxiety”, such as smart uniforms, salubrious and well-cared for surroundings.
“Public school principals can’t offer these superficial cues as easily so they must do it differently. Emphasise creativity and student-initiated projects, take a deeper and more intelligent approach to showcasing student achievement,” she said.
Caro also suggested public school principals emphasise humour, warmth and inclusivity rather than “attempt to be a poor man’s private school”.
“Be open, approachable and friendly and demonstrate the school is student-centred. Emphasise the relationships between students and teachers, be more about substance and not about style,” she said.
“Remember, parents with choice who are considering a public secondary school are more hopeful – while still anxious – so build on that. People will purchase the school that increases their hopes and soothes their fears.”
A report released by private school marketing and communications firm Imageseven in February warned that Australian principals need to brush up on their marketing skills in order to keep their schools competitive.
The firm’s managing director, Brad Entwistle, told The Educator this was mostly due to the changing expectations of school boards.
“Once it was enough to be a competent ‘people person’ and represent the school well. Now principals need to be experts in a whole suite of marketing and communication skills that didn’t even exist just a few years ago,” he said.
Hope and fear are parents’ ‘emotional drivers’
Caro said that it was important for principals to recognise that most parents make purchase decisions emotionally and then post-rationalise, adding that choice of a school “is a purchase decision whether you pay fees or not”.
“The emotional drivers for parents are hope and fear. Hope tends to be more important when parents are choosing a primary school for their child. Most of us feel very optimistic about our five year olds,” she said.
“Fear tends to be the most important driver when it comes to choosing a secondary school. We tend to be very anxious about the teenage years.”
According to Caro, this is why public primary schools are still more popular than private primary schools and why private high schools gain so many enrollments.
“Indeed, I would argue that parents – particularly those who could afford a private school [who choose a public secondary school] are still driven more by hope than fear,” she said, adding these schools have “more trust in the general community”.
“The opposite is true of parents choosing private schools, as they have less trust in the general community.”
Stand out from the crowd
Caro said schools tend to give “very much the same set of rational reasons” why parents should choose their school, such as academic results, extracurricular opportunities, discipline and student welfare.
“All that is fine and necessary, but those are the post-rationalisations rather than the real reasons parents choose a particular school,” she said.
“Choice – as all choice theorists know – actually drives anxiety.”
Caro will be a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference called Down the Rabbit Hole: a Festival of Bold Childhood Ideas. The conference – to be held at the Art Gallery of NSW on April 29 – is being facilitated by Gowrie NSW, which provides early childhood care and family support.