In September 1999, a three-person account team at Dome Communications armed with a budget of $190,000 began aiming toward a large goal—to effectively use PR to educate all Illinois parents about the availability and benefits of a state-sponsored prepaid tuition program known as College Illinois!. In only six months, Dome demonstrated its creativity, knowledge and perseverance by developing and executing an award-worthy program that elevated the reputation of client College Illinois! in its second year of existence. PR helped educate both the media and target consumers of the unique features and benefits of the financial program, driving enough prepaid contract purchases to rank College Illinois! among the top 10 largest college funding plans in the country (based on assets).
College Illinois! required a solid public relations campaign to complement its limited advertising budget, which only allowed for television commercials skewed toward larger markets. Dome, entering into the second enrollment period with College Illinois!, prepared to shift from its first-year efforts of simply promoting name recognition to clearly communicating the program’s purpose, complex features and competitive benefits within the larger issue of families’ early participation in college funding.
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
In researching a survey of College Illinois! purchasers and non-purchasers conducted after the program’s first enrollment, Dome learned that 48% of the residents surveyed became aware of the program through newspaper editorial. In examining the competitive college funding landscape, Dome learned that more than 51% of parents save nothing or less than $5,000 before their student enters college. The agency determined that non-loan college financing instruments were inadequate in effectively reaching and helping parents to prepare for the overwhelming reality of higher education costs, leaving an open opportunity for College Illinois! to fill that crucial need.
Dome’s key communications objectives were to:
- Generate awareness of the availability of College Illinois! as the smartest, most affordable and most certain solution for Illinois parents (87% of all contract purchasers in 1998-1999) to battle increasing college costs, and
- Communicate the accessibility of the program to all income levels in every market in the state—placing equal PR resources and media relations efforts on small towns like Rockford, Ill. as metropolitan Chicago.
Dome planned to communicate the availability of College Illinois! to parents across the state through a broad media relations campaign that focused on a call to action during a limited enrollment. In addition, the agency developed a grass-roots speaking circuit for College Illinois!, whereby representatives could make a personal appeal to families across the state and answer their specific questions about college funding.
Based on research findings that identified “lack of understanding” as a primary inhibitor to purchasing a prepaid tuition contract, Dome created a new communications plan that emphasized clear and consistent message points:
Families can “lock in” tomorrow’s college tuition and fees at today’s prices during College Illinois!’ limited enrollment period;
College Illinois! provides certainty and peace of mind by guaranteeing that tuition will be covered;
With its ability to cover up to two-thirds of all college costs, ISAC’s College Illinois! should be the cornerstone of an early-prepared college funding plan.
Most importantly, all media coverage needed to emphasize a swift call to action—to contact College Illinois! via the toll-free phone number or Web site for more information and an application before the February deadline.
It was clear that print media would provide the most reach to families (as supported by survey research). Accordingly, Dome created a 900-person media list that reached education, personal finance and lifestyle beat reporters at daily, weekly, university and minority publications statewide. Dome set out to build media relationships first by developing a comprehensive press kit (in English and Spanish), complete with a launch news release (emphasizing certainty and peace of mind), program fact sheet, FAQs, segmented pitch letters, graphs illustrating the rise of tuition beyond household income, myths and misconceptions regarding college funding and a list of 25 compelling reasons to participate in College Illinois!. These materials were distributed to coincide with the new enrollment launch press conference.
The agency identified Governor George Ryan among several celebrities, politicians and alumni as the spokesperson who would add validity and relevance to College Illinois! by appealing to the greatest number of families throughout the state. However, when the Governor was unable to confirm his attendance less than 12 days prior to the conference, Dome pulled together five viable launch ideas to serve as contingency plans.
At the same time the team researched and secured community speaking opportunities for College Illinois!, it maintained an aggressive media pitching schedule, calling on existing relationships and building valuable new ones. The agency developed a variety of mat releases, letters to the editor, op/ed features emphasizing the importance of early college funding, College Illinois!’s certainty and security and the ability to gift a contract for the holidays. Dome varied the articles’ tone and offered a variety of story angles while maintaining simplicity and clarity of messaging.
In the last month of the College Illinois! enrollment period, the state treasurer surprised the team by announcing the development of another state-sponsored college funding program, which in turn prompted increased confusion among Illinois residents. Dome quickly advised College Illinois! that clarity and objectivity in our communications with the public would best serve to distinguish the two programs. Dome positioned College Illinois! as an essential base program to cover tuition and fees. This “cornerstone strategy” allowed the programs to co-exist in a complementary fashion. We used this positioning to our advantage and went back to reporters with a press release supporting this strategy.
Dome clearly made the topic of college funding top of mind for Illinois parents, who responded with 12,262 phone calls from 53% of Illinois zip codes and 120,000 Web user sessions, indicating statewide awareness and recruitment. In terms of non-media results, College Illinois! conducted informative presentations before its target audience at nearly 50 community meetings and organizations, including Kiwanis Clubs, Junior League, and Rotary Clubs. Dome placed an article explaining the program as well as College Illinois! brochure inserts into the January Illinois PTA newsletter, reaching more than 1,200 families in the state.
Dome’s media relationship-building paid off. Dome placed for College Illinois! a glowing endorsement from financial expert Terry Savage in the Chicago Sun-Times, which was appropriately timed during the last week of enrollment period (historically the exact time when College Illinois! sells the greatest number of contracts during the entire five months). The article hit our message points of offering “certainty” and being a “guaranteed” prepaid tuition program.
In terms of other media reached during the enrollment, the press conference drew coverage from every major Chicago television radio and print outlet including NBC, ABC, CBS, WGN, FOX, WGN Radio, Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. Through Dome’s persistent pitching, College Illinois! conducted in-studio guest interviews at 14 of the 18 major NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates across the state, resulting in a 78% penetration of potential news stations. Dome also secured more than 50 radio interviews for College Illinois! representatives.
The estimated value of media exposure generated during the enrollment period was $2,379,386 million. The PR efforts for College Illinois! resulted in a total of 22,010,76 impressions (495 newspaper articles) and 10,540,822 (traceable) broadcast and radio impressions (114 TV/radio placements). The combined media coverage totaled 32,780,333 hits. Given that the population of Illinois is 11,895,849, Dome successfully reached the equivalent of one person in the state three times through non-paid media.