“Your brand is not what you say you are; it’s what people say about you.” This was the advice of a Disney Corporation brand manager I had brought in to meet with my principals in a large urban district. Facing increased competition from the state cap on charter schools being lifted, all leaders were focused on making sure the perception of every school, and the entire district, was strong. While these words from the Disney representative are fairly straightforward, why is it that school districts struggle with brand management and what can be done about it?

Historically, school district leaders have not had to worry about competing for student enrollment; if a student lived in the district attendance zone, their only other options were private or home school. Today, there is increased market competition from charters, online academies and public choice options in and out of district boundaries. These options should make district leaders rethink the importance they put on brand management and ask a very basic question, “are we the first option parents think about when making a choice to educate their children or are we the default?” When community stakeholders look at the logo of the school district does it convey a source of pride and appreciation or an asset in decline and negativity?

I’m not suggesting that superintendents take a hiatus and go back to business school. However, having the opportunity to run one of the largest K-12 businesses in the country before returning to the superintendency, I did come to appreciate the efforts that go into proactive marketing and brand management. It important to consider how to inform the market of the value of your product. If your school district is improving and outperforming the state or comparable districts, you need to make sure you are getting that message out and not rely on the media or others to do it for you. Remember to focus on marketing results on what the public really cares about: safety, academic achievement and sound fiscal management. Despite having been named National Superintendent of the Year while in Nevada, the award I made sure our public knew about was that we had won the state’s “Good Fiscal Governance Award” coming out of a recession. With the horrific number of school shootings across the country, messaging about proactive safety initiatives is always well received, as is sharing academic success on state and national levels. It’s about building a public bank of trust and confidence that strengthens your school district’s market appeal.

Additionally, as superintendents, we must protect the brand. We cannot be passive when false, misleading, or inaccurate statements are made about the school district. All efforts must be made to respond to these tactics with facts and authentic information. We need to make sure that not only are traditional media stories reflective of what is actually occurring in schools but due diligence is also paid to social media sites. National groups are promoting a culture war on schools to win elections suggesting that CRT is rampant in every classroom and pornography can be found in every library. Left unchecked, communities can be swayed that these things may be happening and your brand immeasurably damaged.

Ultimately, it is up to each organization to consider how to manage their brand. Hope is not a strategy; it’s incumbent on superintendents and boards to decide what they want their district’s brand to stand for and then do the work to earn and promote it.