The University of Iowa

Marketing Literacy Improvement Efforts to Relevant Audiences: the PROPeL Initiative

Audience with hands up

Earn love for your literacy initiative by communicating the work being done on behalf of your students to key audiences such as parents and school board members.


Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: July 25, 2017

Editor’s Note: This two-part blog post is the fourth in a series of posts related to our newest initiative, Practitioners and Researchers Overcoming Problems of Literacy (PROPeL).

Marketing and communications efforts of schools or districts have traditionally been geared toward involving parents and the community in special events such as back-to-school nights and themed festivals. However, as Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Faculty Member Dorie Clark writes for Forbes, school system administrators, school principals, and even teachers are beginning to recognize the importance and necessity of marketing their strengths to families and the community at large (Clark, 2015). Sharing the aspirations and goals of the school, along with current student performance data, will help to create buy-in and support. The new approaches to marketing are driven in part by the need to secure budget funding, and in some communities, the need to recruit and retain students in an increasingly competitive environment with private and charter schools (Clark, 2015). There is also a need to earn social capital and engender general support and goodwill from the community, and communications can play a major role in these efforts (Kennan & Hazelton, 2006; Saffer, 2016). That way, when a school system wants to pursue involvement in something like the PROPeL initiative, it will have the backing it needs from the community.

When done in a positive manner, communicating improvement activities (such as a new literacy initiative) and the role of stakeholder support within those efforts will create a sense of commitment and ownership among the key audiences. It can ignite a sense of excitement and allegiance that everyone is working together to meet performance goals and improve literacy for all students.

Communicating the Work Being Done in PROPeL

Marketing the PROPeL initiative is vital to its success and ultimately to meeting the SMART goal. Often, schools only think of marketing and communications to garner support from stakeholders outside the district, but that is not the only audience with a vested interest in the effort to improve students’ literacy skills. Communications about the literacy initiative within the school system can help drive the type of organizational change brought about by a new literacy instructional approach and create a shared identity around the initiative (Berger, 2008). In addition, publicizing the progress and anticipated milestones can motivate those directly involved by showing that their work matters and is an important part of the organization-wide effort to improve student literacy outcomes. Communicating within the school system itself creates a sense of buy-in and reinforces the belief that all students are a part of the educational community. This is especially important for the current cycle of PROPeL, which involves students attending alternative schools and juvenile justice facilities.

Marketing and communications plans should include the current or expected strategies designed to promote and garner support for the work. PROPeL teams are encouraged to incorporate their communications and marketing efforts into larger internal or external efforts of the district (e.g., advisory committees, websites, social media, newsletters). Doing so is not only more efficient and cost effective (which is especially beneficial for staff at the PROPeL facilities who are already stretched thin), but it demonstrates a system-wide commitment to the PROPeL goals and improvement activities.

Identify Potential Audiences

Marketing and communications plans for literacy initiatives must be designed according to the needs and interests of particular audiences. For example, the local library may have a different level of involvement in improving student literacy performance when compared to parents of struggling readers.

Asking the following questions can help determine the potential audiences:

  • Who is directly affected by this literacy initiative?
  • Who may experience some indirect positive effects from this initiative?
  • Who would want to know about this initiative? This would include anyone who would self-identify that they would be interested in knowing and learning more about a literacy improvement initiative.
  • Who needs to know about this initiative? There may be some individuals or organizations who the leaders of the literacy initiative recognize should be aware of the initiative, even though it may not be readily apparent to those audiences that the initiative is relevant to them.
  • Whose support is needed in order to achieve a successful outcome?

When identifying the most appropriate audiences, it is important to think outside the box. To facilitate that, try applying a modified version of six degrees of separation, the concept that suggests all people in the world are six or fewer personal connections away from each other. For our PROPeL teams, a modified version relies upon only two or three degrees of separation when brainstorming whom to include as audiences in the marketing and communications plan. Intentionally considering those without immediate involvement in the effort will help to ensure all relevant and critical partners are a part of the overall plan.

An effective marketing and communications plan is carefully crafted and represents a comprehensive outreach to the identified audiences. If the plan is loosely structured, it might not have much success at reaching a specific audience. Having a comprehensive plan can help proactively identify the types of support needed to accomplish the SMART goal. For example, a team may discover when reviewing their plan that they failed to include efforts to obtain support from the school board. This support may prove to be critical when budget cuts demand some programs be eliminated.

Check back on the blog on August 22, 2017 for Part 2 of this blog post, when we will discuss crafting messages for various audiences and selecting mediums for conveying those messages.


Berger, B. (2008). Employee/organizational communications. Retrieved from Institute for Public Relations website:

Clark, D. (2015, April 27). Why public schools are finally getting savvy about marketing. Forbes. Retrieved from

Kennan, W. R., & Hazelton, V. (2006). Internal public relations, social capital, and the role of effective organizational communication. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public Relations Theory II, (pp. 273-296). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Saffer, A. J. (2016). A message-focused measurement of the communication dimension of social capital: Revealing shared meaning in a network of relationships. Journal of Public Relations Research, 28(3-4), 170-192.