• by Christie L. Goodman, APR • IDRA Newsletter • September 1996 • Christie Goodman, APR

There’s a lot of learning going on inside and outside of schools. Unlike school children, adults are more in a position to seek out their own learning. For example, someone planning to purchase a television will look for information about televisions: how much do they cost, which brands have a good picture, which ones are less likely to break down. Someone who is diagnosed with cancer will look for information about cancer and treatment. Someone starting a business will look for information about a particular type of business and about details like what forms have to be filled out.

In the past, individuals and companies with new information would decide when to share it, how much to share, and who to share it with (and who not to share it with). But today, for various reasons, people are not willing to wait for someone else to decide what information they should have. We want the information we consider valuable, and we want it when we want it.

This is creating an enormous demand. As a result, more information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000 years (Trout and Rivkin, 1995). There is more information in one issue of the New York Times than people in previous centuries were exposed to their entire lives (Jolley, 1995). In 1975, there were 300 on­line data bases. Now you can engulf yourself in 7,900 data bases with billions of bits of information (Trout and Rivkin, 1995).

Information for Literacy

An example of this demand is information about literacy and literacy providers. When a person decides to sign up for a literacy class and is able to spend the time it requires, he or she wants to know what classes are available and where they are held. Similarly, a person interested in volunteering or supporting literacy efforts wants to know what is needed and who to contact.

IDRA’s Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations project was created for this reason. It is a special project funded by the Texas Education Agency that focuses on adult education and literacy in Texas. The goal is to create awareness about the need for literacy and to generate community support for literacy initiatives.

Central to the project is the creation of a prototype for a statewide public information campaign and the training of literacy center personnel in effective outreach. IDRA has developed a brochure and public service announcements (PSAs) for television and radio that will be used throughout the state. The materials focus on the theme: Do it… Support it… Reading. Because it means so much [Lee, Hazlo. Apoyalo. Porque significa tanto]. To assist in the training of literacy provider personnel, IDRA has developed a “how­to” guide that has been distributed to state­funded literacy projects in Texas.

In developing the campaign prototype, IDRA followed the same process that is outlined in the outreach guide. This process involves the four steps of outreach (or public relations) which are: fact finding, planning, communicating and evaluating.

Fact finding – analyze the situation, state the problem(s) to be overcome.

IDRA contacted more than 500 literacy projects, distributed and tabulated written surveys, and conducted 14 focus group interviews throughout the state. We listened to descriptions about who is and who is not participating in literacy activities and why.

Planning – put on paper the goals, strategies, assignments, time line, budget, message and target audience.

Using the research results, IDRA and an advisory committee for the project outlined the goals for the campaign. After determining the specific goals and strategies, etc., we carefully crafted the message. We selected target audiences that include the general public and underserved populations.

Communicating – doing what was planned.

Outreach campaigns involve various forms of communicating such as public service announcements, editorial articles, posters, fliers, mailouts, telephone hotlines, special events, generating news coverage and community building. For this project, creation of the message and prototype materials represents the first year of the project. The second year of the project (which is currently pending funding) will involve implementation of the campaign with media throughout the state.

Evaluating – what worked, what did not work, what would be done differently, what has been learned.

As IDRA implements the campaign, we will test market the materials and evaluate their effectiveness.

The Power of the Message

Using the outreach guide, literacy center staff, advisors and volunteers are following these four steps to tailor their outreach efforts to best meet the needs of their own communities.

In some communities, encouraging people to sign up for literacy and English as a second language classes has not been difficult. Literacy projects in these communities often have long waiting lists for their classes. What they need first are teachers, volunteers and resources to enable them to expand their services. They need something bigger and longer lasting.

Given this reality, IDRA’s prototype outreach campaign is designed to increase the number of literate adults by setting activities that will lead to a concerted community will around literacy and will carry on and multiply the campaign’s outcomes. The project’s vision is that, as more and more people are touched by their involvement in literacy efforts – either as participants in literacy programs or as volunteers – they will share their stories with others and will invite others to become involved. As excitement grows, the campaign should take on a life of its own, and the community will accept responsibility to achieve universal literacy.

This illustrates the first rule of developing an outreach campaign: create a vision of what will result. Doing so will change the planned activities from simply giving out information to communicating in ways that encourage support and action.

Advertisers and the entertainment industry have been doing this for years. For example, a hamburger chain may want to communicate that its burgers are better or less fattening or cheaper, but what it really wants is for people to buy its burgers. So, the chain will give out all the information it thinks people want in order for them to choose its burgers over someone else’s.

The same trend that has caused information demand has also caused a bombardment of information – information overload. “Soon people will have to be treated for encyclophobia – the fear of being trapped in an electronic encyclopedia,” write public relations experts Jack Trout and Steve Rivkin (1995). A German researcher found that within 24 hours, people forget up to 80 percent of what they thought they had learned (Trout and Rivkin, 1995). People forget because there is so much to remember.

With all this information demand and availability, there is intense competition for our eyes and ears. In one of my college advertising classes, I learned that the first order of business is to grab attention:

“Although politeness is generally considered a virtue, it really has no place in a television commercial. People go to television to be entertained, not to see commercials. Therefore, the commercial must break through their relaxation and get their attention. If radio must intrude, television commercials must interrupt. They must break through the wall of interest in the program content and literally call attention to the product or message” (Schultz, 1984).

Thus, we are bombarded each day by hundreds of media messages – some welcome, some not. These messages usually are trying to get us to buy things or to “buy” ideas. But, in addition to – and in some cases more than – the messages that say “buy this” or “watch this,” audiences are remembering the messages that say: “The thinner you are the better,” “Girls should be sexy and boys should be tough,” “The good guy always wins,” and “Violence is the only solution.”

News programs and television producers determine what stories they will tell based on what is unusual. Viewers interpret the news as being usual. So, when media coverage focuses graphically on crime, for instance, people naturally continue to worry about random crime. People’s perceptions are influenced even though the facts show that most crime rates are dropping and most crimes are not random (Prothrow­Stith, 1991).

Researchers are studying the effects of such messages. Exhaustive reviews of the evidence, accumulated for more than 40 years in more than 3000 studies, have lead researchers to conclude that the mass media significantly effects behaviors, perceptions and attitudes of many children, adolescents and adults (MediaScope, 1993).

Words and media images are very powerful. Sometimes it is easy to believe that no one message will – by itself – have such an impact. But, if this is true, why communicate at all?

Choosing Messages of Value

Outreach messages for literacy must be determined carefully. When they convey information and images that people feel connected to and when they encourage action, the effects can be both powerful and positive.

In working through the four steps listed above, decisions must be made. In the hurry of deadlines and juggling various responsibilities, the easy answers can look attractive. While developing its campaign prototype for literacy, IDRA faced this. Some people we talked to suggested that the only way to get someone’s attention is to focus on how bad illiteracy is for everyone else and to categorize people who cannot read as “lost” and needing “rescue.”

In our analysis of a sampling of past literacy outreach campaigns and their messages, 19 percent contained “deficit” model messages, and only 13 percent contained clearly “valuing” messages.

The deficit model assumes that there is something wrong with a person who cannot read well and that literacy projects exist to fix the problem (Robledo Montecel, et al., 1993). The deficit way of thinking will codify a person as, in this case, an “illiterate.” It uses the word “illiterate” as a noun instead of an adjective as if being illiterate is the sum total of that person’s identity. Deficit­based outreach messages will attempt to appeal to people’s guilt to generate action, or they will use economics to describe “illiterates” as a “drain” on society.

Paul Ilsley and Norman Stahl have studied literacy outreach efforts and have outlined four common deficit metaphors and their effects: “Unfortunately illiteracy is often discussed in relation to such striking notions as war, disease, prison and chronic unemployment both in print media and electronic media campaigns,” (1993). Designed to invoke strong connotations in the public’s collective mind, these metaphors portray illiteracy as a function of school language, as a disease, as a national enemy in the military sense, and as a lack of capital in a cultural banking system (see box on Page 10).

Some people argue that such metaphors are used because they are effective. But, the fact is, while messages that focus on the negative costs of illiteracy to the community, to business and to taxpayers are easy messages to communicate, any positive reactions that result from such messages have been shown to be short­lived. IDRA’s goal is to create community support for literacy efforts – real support, lasting support.

Others argue that such metaphors are the only choices out there. They have become so accustomed to deficit model messages – whether associated with literacy, lawbreakers or lipstick – that they cannot see any alternatives.

Even when the intentions are good, the means do not justify the ends. The concerns raised by Ilsley and Stahl are similar to concerns raised by IDRA in its work in education. IDRA has known there are alternatives because it has demonstrated them from its inception. Its vision is to work with people to “make schools work for all children” not “make children work for all schools.”

In IDRA’s Coca­Cola Valued Youth Program, the stated and underlying philosophy is that all children are valuable, none is expendable. The program works with students that schools were about to give up on. It helps the schools and families see the youths from another perspective – as tutors, as capable of contributing, as valuable.

In a climate that says parents who do not attend school meetings obviously do not care about their children’s education, IDRA chooses an alternative. IDRA works with parents an schools to see each other differently and to work with each other differently in ways that value both.

This alternative to the deficit model is the “valuing” model. In literacy programs, the valuing model takes the goal, “We serve people who cannot read well,” and emphasizes the first three words, “We serve people.” It says adult learners bring life experience, skills and their own strengths.

In literacy outreach, the valuing model asks questions of its message like:

  • Does the message validate diverse populations?
  • Are stereotypes avoided and individuals portrayed with dignity and self­worth?
  • Can the underserved groups identify positively with the portrayals and the message?
  • Is the message one of hope and possibility?
  • Is the message one that supports the inherent dignity of people who happen to be illiterate?

The materials created by IDRA are designed to portray literacy initiatives as investments. The message starts and ends with the concept of valuing all individuals. It communicates a picture of the better life as a result of involvement at any level – business, volunteer, service provider, client. In each television PSA, radio announcement, newspaper advertisement and flier, one key phrase is used: Do it… Support it… Reading. Because it means so much [Lee, hazlo. Apoyalo. Porque significa tanto].

Rather than highlighting, for example, the external bad things that will happen if audience members do not do something, this campaign designed by IDRA encourages individuals by appealing to more inward motivations. The campaign focuses on the benefits of literacy, such as job preparedness in a high­tech workplace. Through supplementary materials, it provides specific information and strategies on encouraging literacy through implementation of workplace and community education and training programs. It shows successes. It gives ideas. It points to tools and resources.

Conducting an outreach campaign does not have to be difficult, but it does involve planning and making choices. Audiences are making choices too. They are deciding what they will learn and how they will learn it. Their choices are based on what is valuable to them. Ours should be too.

[See also Messages to Include (and to Avoid) in Literacy Outreach.]


Ilsley, Paul and Norman Stahl. “Reconceptualizing the Language of Adult Literacy,” Journal of Reading (Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, September 1993).

Jolley, Craig. “What You Don’t Know Ca Hurt You,” conference presentation. (San Antonio, Texas: Public Relations Society of America, 1995).

MediaScope. “Screen Violence and its Effects on Society.” (Studio City, Calif.: MediaScope, 1993).

Prothrow­Stith, Deborah. Deadly Consequences: How Violence is Destroying our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem (New York, N.Y.: Harper Perennial, 1991).

Robledo Montecel, María and Aurora Gallagher, Aurelio Montemayor, Abelardo Villarreal, Ninta Adame­Reyna, and Josie Supik. Hispanic Families as Valued Partners: An Educator’s Guide. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1993).

Schultz, Don and Dennis Martin, William Brown. Strategic Advertising Campaigns. (Lincolnwood, Ill.: National Textbook Company, 1984) pg. 291.

Trout, Jack and Steve Rivkin. “Keep it Simple, Strategist,” The Public Relations Strategist (New York, NY: Public Relations Society of America, Fall 1995) pp. 41­46.

For more information about the IDRA Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations project contact Aurelio Montemayor or Christie Goodman at 210/684­8180.

Christie Goodman, APR, is IDRA’s Communications Manager. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]