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Pittsburgh's SS/HS Initiative Uses Social Marketing To Stem Truancy

For grantees considering using social marketing as a way to support their Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiatives, Pittsburgh's anti-truancy campaign offers lessons on the importance of planning, patience, and flexibility.

A 1999 SS/HS grantee, the school district of Pittsburgh learned that success is possible-even for SS/HS grantees just learning the ropes in communications and social marketing.

How to use the Pittsburgh initiative's communications resources was an open question when Cheryl Pinto, the SS/HS project assistant, and Erica Jones, a Steering Committee member, attended a Communications Institute held by the SS/HS Communications Team in Reno, NV, in 2001.

Asked to detail a communications plan for their SS/HS initiative, the duo reasoned that truancy was a natural focus. According to Ms. Jones, "It was something we could enhance."

Turning Concept Into Reality Felt Like “Daunting Undertaking”

Photo: Empty desks The SS/HS Initiative was already collaborating with the city of Pittsburgh on its truancy abatement effort. Meanwhile, truancy reduction had become an important issue for the Pittsburgh School District. Using workshop materials, the two SS/HS project team members identified an audience (parents), decided on tools (a video public service announcement [PSA], posters, and billboard ads), and developed a timeline.

Returning home, Ms. Pinto and Ms. Jones created a budget and proposed the idea to Dr. Margaret Brown, the project director of the SS/HS initiative in Pittsburgh. She accepted the plan, identified funds, and carried the idea forward to the SS/HS Steering Committee.

The concept was approved. However, Ms. Pinto notes that turning it into reality was "a daunting undertaking." Hurdles included learning the system for approval of costs and content, adjusting for delays and missteps, and finding vendors.

To develop the materials, Ms. Jones and Ms. Pinto drew on their creativity and their experience as consumers. They continued to tap the SS/HS Communications Team for help with scripting and other aspects of development. Using focus groups, they got feedback from teachers, parents, and students.

Commercial Video House Helped Pittsburgh Make It Happen

Photo: School Hallway With the SS/HS Communications Team's help, Pittsburgh's team put together a letter and talking points to pitch the idea of partnering with a television station, perhaps paying for some air time if a station helped produce the PSA. However, stations wouldn't get involved in production. One offered to run a developed PSA, but the offer vanished when the SS/HS initiative didn't buy into the station's project on connecting with kids.

When the school district's video department didn't have time to produce the video, the SS/HS project team sought estimates from outside vendors. A commercial video house nudged the budget under $5,000, avoiding the need for approval by the school board. The video's cost also was held down by using students and other volunteers as actors.

Once products were developed, the team doubled back to the school district for some final approvals. The billboard image of students had to be revised in favor of an empty chair with the question, "It's 11 a.m. Do you know where your child is?" Fortunately, the PSA-already "in the can"-was approved.

The difficult issue of air time was resolved when a TV station agreed to run the PSA. The station suggested that, in addition to the donated air time provided in October and November 2002, the SS/HS initiative buy 200 weekend and news-time slots. However, the expenditure didn't win approval.

A first round of billboard messages, with words only, went up as school let out for the 2002 summer vacation. When another 30 boards went up in the fall, they included the image of the empty chair. Posters were placed in locations such as schools, libraries, and community centers.

Lesson Learned? “Plan Before You Execute,” Says Jones

Photo: Students For Ms. Jones, the lesson of this imaginative, often challenging endeavor is to "plan before you execute." Ms. Pinto, who provided most of the staff work, found that it's important to be savvy in dealing with media outlets. She said, "You need to buy air time unless you form a partnership."

The two agree that the help they received from the SS/HS Communications Team was invaluable, from the initial workshop at the Communications Institute in Reno to the ongoing advice and review during development of the truancy prevention campaign.

Ms. Jones and Ms. Pinto are satisfied that they came up with high-quality products that conveyed the desired message. The billboards' bold design and provocative message drew a lot of notice from parents, agencies, students, and businesses. The posters are still in wide use.

The free play the PSA got from the TV station was limited. Yet the team notes that the ads were seen, with parents calling in about them. "You can get others to pay attention through these media," said Dr. Brown.

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Last Updated on 1/27/2015