Reputation Management

The good folks at the Great Lakes Urban Exchange -- GLUE -- take as part of their mission composing a new narrative for recovering Rust Belt cities, including Pittsburgh. It's a fine idea, but actions drive words, rather than the other way around. If we build it, you might say, they will write it.

Over at our law school, we've had some sobering lessons recently in reputation management. If you paid very close attention to this morning's Post-Gazette, you read that Pitt's law school fell 16 places in last week's 2009 USNews ranking of all US law schools. (There's a silver lining for me: Pitt's intellectual property law program held on to to its place in the top 30 nationally. I was the original Director of that program; this year, I'm its Acting Director.) I won't belabor the data (there were some changes in the reporting methodology), and I won't argue that the rankings don't matter (though they matter less than many people think, and differently, too). Rankings should be taken seriously; the question is how.

The biggest drivers of a given school's standing for USNews purposes are two reputation numbers: reputation among academic peers (determined by a survey that doesn't actually measure reputation among peers), and reputation among practicing lawyers and judges (likewise).

The first measure is notoriously difficult to move. Among law professors, once a middle-tier law school, almost assuredly always a middle-tier school -- regardless of changes in faculty composition, quality of students, success on the bar exam, or alumni skill in the courtroom.

The second measure fluctuates a bit, because the range of practicing lawyers and judges that receives the survey in the first place is pretty narrow, because the number of lawyers and judges who return the survey is relatively small, and because the level of information that a given lawyer or judge has about a given law school -- outside of the top-level national schools -- is pretty slim. So, small changes in the raw data can add up to larger changes in the reputation ranking. Since middle-tier law schools are very tightly clustered in the overall rankings, a little swing here or there in an underlying data point can move a school up or down in what seems like dramatic fashion. This year, Pitt's lawyer/judge reputation number dropped. Why? Who knows; right now, we don't, though we're thinking about it. It didn't fall below the range established over the last 15 or so years that the magazine has been producing the rankings, but it fell, and along with a couple of other little data points, that hurt the school's place on the list.

Back to Pittsburgh: Is the region's reputation more like our law school's academic reputation -- essentially immovable from its historic baseline? Or is it more variable, like our law school's reputation among lawyers and judges, and subject to unexpected and often unexpectable changes in the breeze? Let's be optimistic and hope for the latter. If GLUE and others (the Pittsburgh 250 celebration, for example) are crafting a new narrative, however, they should be thinking carefully not only about what that narrative is, but who is listening, and how. Who are Pittsburgh's metaphoric lawyer and judge reviewers, and how much information do they really have and retain? How fickle might their opinions be? Or Steven Wright sometimes says, if all the world is a stage, then who is in the audience?

The real rankings lesson for our law school -- and one that we re-learn every year -- is that rankings can't make a school get better or worse; the better strategy is to invest in the things that actually make the school better (high quality teaching, high quality scholarship, excellent support for job placement and career support), then do our best to share the good news with the world. Pittsburghers can't make up new stories; the region and its residents can only tell the stories that they know. In other words, the storytelling is the easy part. The difficult part is this motto: If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Oh, and: So much for the Pirates' undefeated season. But go Pens!

[Updated 4/03]


4 Responses to "Reputation Management"

Chad said... 4/03/2008 9:30 AM

The real rankings lesson for our law school -- and one that we re-learn every year -- is that rankings can't make a school get better or worse; the better strategy is to invest in the things that actually make the school better (high quality teaching, high quality scholarship, excellent support for job placement and career support), then do our best to share the good news with the world.

Never have wiser words been written about academic rankings, Mike. Which begs the question: why are you and I two of the only people in the world who seem to realize that? More damage has been done to schools, to programs, to students, and to simple common sense in the relentless, fruitless pursuit of the all-mighty rankings than we could ever begin to catalog.

Every moment every third-rate administrator, much less any first-rate faculty member, spends chasing the rankings is a moment spent screwing the students.

Jim Russell said... 4/03/2008 12:10 PM

Pittsburgh has enjoyed high rankings. Richard Florida put out a new book all about place rankings. However, the relationship between migration and reputation is weak at best.

Rankings do have real effects. For example, an MBA from a top-50 business school will buy you UK citizenship. But I am not aware of anything comparable for place rankings. Overall, both reputation and bottom line opportunities don't matter much.

However, peer-to-peer networking (i.e. chain migration) will make a difference.

The SmartStart Coach said... 4/03/2008 6:17 PM

While I'm not a fan of chasing ratings and don't put too much stock in rankings (and related ranking methodologies), I did want to say that managing one's reputation is critical to being successful.

The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to reliably and consistently deliver value.

If you've got that covered, word-of-mouth (or these days, word-of-mouse) remains your best advertising and endorsement.

Linda M. Lopeke
Teaching success-to-go for people working@the speed of life!

Frank said... 4/04/2008 10:04 AM

Another way to affect the perceptions people have of our city and region is to get a larger and more diverse group of people telling our story.

I read an article somewhere a year or so ago that ranked cities by how many blogs existed per capita, and Pittsburgh was close to the top of the list. Some Pittsburgh bloggers are also starting to get national attention (, eg). I think blogging is a communication and outreach tool that can be very powerful and is still on a growth track in terms of influence.

Getting a more diverse group of people blogging will help present Pittsburgh as the multi-faceted and dynamic place that it is, and it's in the interest of all local bloggers to promote this.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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