CAMPAIGNS: Edexcel seen to improve in media's eyes - Crisis Management

Client: Edexcel
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: Restoring Reputation and Speaking Out
Timescale: May 2002 - present
Budget: In-house resources

Curriculum 2000 brought many changes to the education sector, including the new A-level, comprising two parts (the AS and the A2) made up of six units - four coursework and two exams. For Edexcel this meant the number of units to administer and mark jumped from four million in 2000 to ten million in 2002.

The resulting difficulties in tracking exam scripts were compounded by communications problems with schools as the number of enquiries soared, along with media attention in 2001 which focused on a series of administrative errors.

A range of negative stories ran concerning the sale of leaked papers, lost, delayed and erroneous exam results, and papers with missing questions.

An AS maths paper was found to have included an unanswerable question, and a public comment by then Education and Skills Secretary Estelle Morris was followed by calls for Edexcel's licence to be revoked.

The board was condemned by all newspapers, and one disgruntled student created a protest website - Edexhell - which published, among other things, a list of suggestions for how it could improve its communications with students.

In October 2001, incoming chief executive John Kerr implemented a £12m investment programme to overhaul administration systems, quality control and customer services. A head of external relations was installed in May 2002, and a rigorous overhaul of the board's comms began.

Objectives

To communicate Edexcel's programme of reform and upgrade.

To restore Edexcel's reputation. As an exam board, Edexcel had enjoyed good relations within education, but a low public profile. A barrage of reported administrative errors meant that negative press coverage was the first that many people had heard of Edexcel.

To gain more balanced and positive media coverage, and to make the point that the important issue was less a board crisis than systemic problems resulting from the massive increase in exam papers.

To establish a relationship with students and rebuild staff morale.

Despite support from teachers, staff were disillusioned, feeling that the situation was out of their control, and that improvement to internal comms was necessary.

Strategy and Plan

When Frank Wingate was appointed head of external relations in May 2002, his first task was to boost the press office, which until then had consisted of just one freelance, overloaded with calls. The new team of three handled almost 1,000 calls over the four-month exam results period.

Edexcel had always dealt with the nationals, but with specialised education correspondents familiar with the structure of the boards and issues of the day. As education became high-profile, non-specialists were increasingly covering stories.

To establish transparency, Edexcel opened its processing centre so journalists could see for themselves the volume of work and the problems involved in handling ten million marked exam papers.

Education correspondents were then offered one-to-one meetings with Kerr.

A similar approach was taken with Edexhell creator Jonathan Higgs, who was invited to visit Edexcel's HQ. However, the move to engage students came only after Higgs was initially threatened with legal action.

A weekly bulletin was created to strengthen internal communication, keeping staff up to date with the movements of the chief executive.

Measurement and Evaluation

Edexcel did not lose any business last year, which the board attributes to more balanced press coverage.

In May 2002, BBC education correspondent Mike Baker interviewed John Kerr, giving Edexcel a platform for rebuttal of criticisms.

Since then, there have been no entirely negative national news stories, and journalists have tended to recognise the difficulties faced by the board.

Results

Edexcel was awarded a clean bill of health this year from regulator QCA.

Within education generally there has been recognition that the board is back on track. Edexcel was exonerated from the grade crisis by the Tomlinson report, while a Hansard report stated that it had the least number of mistakes of any board in Summer 2002.

The most recent Association of Colleges customer satisfaction survey showed positive results, as did Edexcel's own survey. Teachers have shown great support.

Results have undoubtedly been achieved, although communicating improvements to parents and students will be an ongoing challenge.

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