Students talking and smiling

Strategic Communications

Father and daughter reading a book
Siblings hugging each other and smiling
Little dog licks the little girl's face
Little dog licks the little girl's face

An effective early grade reading effort must have a strong message and a multi-venue effort to get the message out to key audiences to drive action.


Here’s how expert Julia Coffman at the Harvard Family Research Project put it: 

Ultimately, the community strategies will require a campaign to build and sustain the public will necessary over time to accomplish the strategies. The community coalition needs air cover in order to do the work that is necessary. Also, the public must see success being achieved and the need for continued progress to create the desired change.”


For early grade reading, a strategic communications effort can maximize an issues campaign by rolling out in three phases that align with the life cycle of the coalition:

  • Phase 1 – Let the public know that early grade reading is important – either as a measure of how successful the school readiness work has been so far or as a benchmark of how kids are doing on the path to high school graduation. This can be done by your early grade reading coalition in its early stages and community conversations can help drive that phase.
  • Phase 2 – Lift up the community’s challenge by highlighting the achievement gap. This does involve highlighting the problem, but in the context of a cause. This can be done as your coalition begins to grow and brings together individuals and organizations that can help you think about the issue of early grade reading. A volunteer call to action to recruit reading buddies for child care centers and K-3 classrooms helps drive that phase without getting stuck in “the problem.”
  • Phase 3 – Frame the solution and give people and organizations a chance to be part of the solution; especially if there are initiatives working on the ground to boost reading, the message could morph into “good start, right direction, more to do” as a way to call out the work ahead without diminishing what’s happened to date.  Target your message to segmented audiences. This is best done after your coalition has developed and fine-tuned strategies to boost early grade reading and is ready to galvanize even more people and institutions around the solutions strategies. Whether the ask will be for people to give, advocate or volunteer, you will have greater power in that ask and greater visibility if it truly drives research-based solutions rooted in the community’s aspirations (as voiced in community conversations) and co-created by a diverse coalition of individuals and institutions.

Depending on your resources and the marketing/communications volunteers supporting the coalition, each phase may have a public opinion polling and research component, message development, opinion leader outreach (including civic club Speaker’s Bureaus), grassroots outreach (including guerilla marketing at places where people live, play work and pray), advertising, social media and media coverage strategies.


Connecting With People Wherever They Are

One construct that marketing and communications professionals use is called “touch point marketing” or thinking through all the different ways to interact with your target audience. As you develop your early grade reading strategies with your coalition, you will get clearer about which audience can be most helpful in driving to your early grade reading goals.  How can you communicate with them as they move through their average day?  This scenario walks through a possible “touch point marketing” approach to early grade reading.

Whatever your marketing/communications resources – dollars budgeted, volunteers on your Marketing Committee or pro bono services proffered by a local public relations/advertising agency – you should be diligent in seeking to leverage your assets.


So What Can United Ways Do to Leverage Communications Assets?

  • Leverage United Way and the Ad Council’s new radio and Web PSAs about volunteering. Access the United Way Worldwide brand management site here.
  • Work with local cable companies to create low-cost local public service advertising to urge people to help a child read, and driving them to a Web site (part of with information and options for action. Ask your corporate partners who already advertise to donate a portion of their ad time (on radio or TV) to you, so your PSAs can air for free and possibly back-to-back with LIVE UNITED PSAs.
  • Develop social media strategies, using Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks to build support and to encourage supporters to engage their friends and family. Seek to educate people online with a variety of social media tactics (video contests, etc.) and offer a menu of specific give, advocate, volunteer actions they can take. Check out social media tips here.
  • Ask your partners to spread the word through their channels, to their constituencies. Whether pediatricians, PTA members or faith communities, tap into existing partnerships to boost awareness and strategically target new partners. Ideally, the coalition you’ve built can collaborate to create awareness tools and materials (e.g. presentations, newspaper columns, public dialogue strategies, etc.) that all members can share with their constituencies.
  • Work with your corporate relationships to ask them to feature articles, information, engagement opportunities, news about their corporate commitment to fund and support efforts to improve early grade reading, profile individual employees who tutor or mentor in their internal communications vehicles like e-newsletters, internal signage, etc.


Girl eating apple and smiling