Literacy agencies fulfill an important and demanding role in their communities with limited funding. Finding enough time and resources for outreach and promotion is difficult. However, increasing program awareness and effective public relations are extremely important and are closely linked to successful learner recruitment.
Public relations is all about your agency projecting a positive image in your community to a wide variety of stakeholders. Here is an overview of four different types of PR that help ensure that your agency is projecting a positive image in your community.
Front Door Public Relations
Front door PR includes those seemingly meaningless day-to-day interactions that take place during the course of doing business. It is often through these casual, incidental and unplanned day-to-day encounters that the value, worth and significance of an organization is perceived. Just like with dating, first impressions count! Here are a few tips to ensure good first impressions:
- Have a cheerful, helpful person answering the phone and greeting those who come into the office.
- Have an easy-to-use phone answering system; for example, make it clear how to leave a message and make sure the caller doesn’t have to push a complicated series of numbers to speak to someone.
- Make the office’s reception area welcoming and professional.
- Have a private meeting spot for assessment and intake.
- Make sure communication tools (brochures, website, posters, etc.) are clear and user-friendly.
Maintenance Public Relations
It is also important to remember the ongoing public relations work that needs to be done. PR, advertising and recruiting are not one-shot deals; they are part of an ongoing cycle. There are always newcomers to communities, new staff at other agencies and people who are looking for literacy services now who were not interested before. This type of PR is about the information we put forward to those who are already involved in our agency: learners, volunteers, staff, sponsors, donors, community partners, local service agencies and funders. Maintenance PR is vital in maintaining a positive reputation in your community. It includes things such as:
- Communicating promptly, respectfully and professionally to all stakeholders
- Responding to emails and telephone calls as soon as possible
- Honouring any commitments made by your agency
- Actively sharing agency information (newsletters, etc.) with all stakeholders
Outreach Public Relations
Outreach PR means going beyond your current stakeholders to reach new people and develop new relationships. It includes things like submitting press releases, distributing promotional information, taking part in community events and making presentations. It is also about trying to think more creatively: where might you promote your agency that you have not considered before?
A wonderful example of outreach PR is “Literary Tuesdays”. Literacy Plus in Renfrew County offers an annual fundraising event called “Literary Tuesdays”. This event is an annual authors’ festival, where for each Tuesday in July various authors come to a local restaurant and do readings in support of literacy. Community members come by and enjoy the readings, have coffee and dessert and a lovely evening out. “Literary Tuesdays”, while primarily intended as a fundraiser, has also proven to be an effective PR activity for Literacy Plus. Typically, between 50 and 150 people come out for each of the four Tuesday evenings in July. Literacy Plus gets local media coverage and the event definitely raises their profile.
Joining Forces: Collaborative Public Relations
Collaborative PR involves partnerships with other organizations to further mutual promotional goals. A group of organizations working together to organize a community fair, awareness campaign or a joint volunteer recruitment initiative are examples of this kind of PR.
Think creatively! Literacy Plus in Renfrew County was told by the advertising department of a local radio station that some businesses are willing to share their advertising time with non-profits. For example, leading up to Family Literacy Day in Renfrew County, the Honda dealership added a 15 second tag about literacy to its regular advertisement.
Involving Adult Students in Outreach
Involving adult students in promoting your literacy program is an extremely effective promotional tool. Their from-the-heart testimonials on the impact of literacy on their lives is one of the best ways to reach other adults with low literacy skills, their friends and family, volunteers and your community in general. Whether through community presentations, through quotes in various promotional materials or through newspaper articles or radio PSAs be sure to include the voices of adult students. These voices have great power to move and inspire others, especially those with low literacy skills.
Get the stories and testimonials of adult students in writing! It is such a valuable promotional tool to ask students to share their own experience before and after accessing the program. Once written down, this information could shared be via your newsletter, on your website, in brochures and during community presentations.
The Ontario Literacy Coalition has produced a wonderful resource to help literacy programs start up a learner speaker program: Let the Experts Do the Talking! A Manual for Literacy Organizations Starting a Learner Speaker Program http://en.copian.ca/library/learning/experts/contents.htm
Promoting your literacy agency in your community is a very important way to increase program awareness. And literacy agencies tend to excel at this. In 2003, Community Literacy of Ontario conducted a survey about Ontario’s community-based literacy programs. We found that 90% of community literacy agencies conduct presentations and 87% participate in local fairs and special events. As well, 77% hold a variety of promotional events such as open houses, scrabble tournaments, etc. (Source: CLO’s 2003 Program Survey: http://www.communityliteracyofontario.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/mar03.pdf).
Community networking increases access to potential students and increases awareness of literacy needs amongst other local organizations. It can increase new referrals and build or strengthen organizational relationships. It can also identify gaps or duplications in service.
Literacy Link South Central (www.llsc.on.ca) has spent the last two years trying to address the question: “Where are all the adult literacy learners?” In response, LLSC decided that they needed to help community organizations to do two things. First of all, LLSC decided to help local organizations identify when a client’s lack of literacy skills is actually a barrier. LLSC developed a literacy awareness workshop to introduce frontline caseworkers to the issue of literacy. This workshop was designed to help caseworkers understand when a referral to a literacy program would be helpful. LLSC’s literacy awareness workshop also took some of the fear away from making a referral. Frontline workers had identified that they were concerned they might not make the right referral so sometimes they shied away from making any referrals at all.
Secondly, Literacy Link South Central also knows that many people with low literacy skills will never actually enroll in a program. Because of this, they also offer clear writing workshops to community organizations. LLSC knows that clients with low literacy skills may have a better chance of using various community services if those services are promoted using the principles of clear writing. LLSC has found that community agencies really appreciate the clear writing workshop and it helps them to introduce literacy to their staff at the same time.
Over the past year and a half, Literacy Link South Central estimates that almost 1,000 staff from various community agencies have attended these clear writing workshops. As well LLSC has seen an increase in the number of referrals to local literacy agencies from frontline workers in diverse community organizations. Now that’s a great literacy success story!
Ottawa Community Coalition for Literacy has produced a valuable resource called “Literacy Outreach Package.” This resource gives advice and tools on effective ways to make contact with social agencies in your community. It includes sample approach letters, sample community questionnaires, a literacy awareness presentation and a literacy information package for social agency staff. You can access this resource free of charge on the website of the Ottawa Community Coalition for Literacy at: www.occl.ca/pubs/outreach/cover.htm.
Partnerships with other organizations are also an effective tool for community outreach. Effective partnerships can increase community visibility, increase referrals and increase access to resources.
Partners can be involved in a variety of ways. They can provide money, in-kind services, the physical location, promotional assistance and resources, just to name a few. The degree of partnership that you are involved in will be different for every agency. Some organizational partnerships are large and complex, and setting up a partnership then becomes formal and requires written agreements. Other organizations with a less complex partnership will have more informal, handshake-type arrangements. In either a formal or informal partnership it is critical that the roles and responsibilities of all partners be agreed to in writing. Ontario’s community literacy agencies have a great deal of experience in partnership building with 90% of agencies engaging in partnerships with local community agencies (Source: CLO’s 2003 Program Survey).
A great example of an effective partnership happened in the south end of the Literacy Network Northeast area. While establishing the need for a regional information and referral centre, each of the literacy programs provided staff one morning each month to go to Ontario Works to conduct initial assessments and then make recommendations as to where the client would go. This helped literacy agencies get the right referrals and helped OW move clients through the system. It was an extremely effective recruitment tool. The Network then worked with the literacy programs to document the success and effectiveness of having a centralized assessment and referral service and successfully obtained two-year funding from the Trillium Foundation to set up and staff such a service. This partnership provided substantial benefits to the community and all of the organizations involved!
For more information on partnerships, check out the following resource: “Building Strong and Effective Community Partnerships: A Manual for Family Literacy Workers” by Sharon Skage for The Family Literacy Action Group of Alberta. This resource is available online at: www.en.copian.ca/library/learning/partner/partner.pdf
No Wrong Door
In its 2004 Ontario Budget, the government committed to a fundamental transformation of the way the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities delivers training and employment programs. As part of this commitment, the One-Stop Training and Employment System will incorporate a No Wrong Door (NWD) approach to service delivery of labour market and training programs and services. Programs that will come under NWD include literacy, Local Training Boards, Job Connect, Apprenticeship and Summer Jobs Service.
NWD means that any One-Stop service delivery location will have the capacity to:
- Inform customers on all employment and training-related programs and services sponsored by the Ministry
- Conduct an initial assessment of customer needs
- Refer customers to the One-Stop location or other services best suited to their needs
By design, NWD should result in enhanced partnerships and even stronger linkages, awareness and referrals between training providers.
The government aims to deliver more effective services with enhanced results through this transformation of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
Questions and Activities for Reflection
- Is your literacy agency well-known in your community? Why or why not? What steps could you take to improve?
- What strategies have you used to promote your literacy agency in your community? What worked and what didn’t work and why?
- How could you more effectively involve adult students in community outreach?
- How could you expand or create more opportunities for your literacy agency to engage in joint outreach with other community agencies?
- What steps could you take to build on existing relationship or link with additional stakeholders in your community in order to increase referrals and/or build new partnerships?