Scholastic engages kids - from 'Potter' to politics

Though recent book promotions have raised its profile, publisher Scholastic seeks to become as equally well-known for its commitment to childhood issues and education.

Though recent book promotions have raised its profile, publisher Scholastic seeks to become as equally well-known for its commitment to childhood issues and education.

When released this summer, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince broke publishing records on two continents for being one of the most successful book launches of all time.

Although the popularity of the series contributed to its sales momentum, US publisher Scholastic knew it needed to have a role in both building suspense and controlling the flow of information - something the PR team can now count as its own victory, as well.

"Harry Potter raised our profile as a company," says Sara Sinek, senior director of corporate communications and media relations, who noted that the series' success has helped the PR team pitch stories on other topics. "It brought it to a more media-savvy level."

For each of the six titles, the PR team had to top its own success, notes Tom Goodman, president/CEO of Goodman Media International, which helped launch the series' latest two books.

"People say, 'It's Harry Potter - it's going to be easy.' The reality is there's a lot of work," Goodman says. "At the end of the day, [the Scholastic team] is up for the challenge. There's really good continuity and an incredible understanding of the book, the brand, and the author."

"Every [launch] is bigger. The expectation is bigger. The interest is bigger," says Kris Moran, director of publicity, who has launched all six books. "The challenge very often is feeding the media interest. We have limited access to the author [J.K. Rowling], and everyone wants something different."

Half-Blood Prince was the first launch for Kyle Good, Scholastic's new VP of corporate communications. She recalls that the PR team helped The New York Times find sources for a story about how sleep-away camps handled the book's arrival.

Some camps, for instance, relaxed their one-package-per-camper policy to allow the books to be delivered. Other camps - much like bookstores around the country - had midnight parties on the eve of the publication date.

Melissa Anelli, editorial director of fan site The Leaky Cauldron and a reporter at The Staten Island Advance, notes that even Scholastic didn't immediately realize that Harry Potter would become a phenomenon.

"We started to see with book four that [the PR team] started treating them as events," Anelli says.

The number of bookstores hosting parties also grew exponentially over the last launch. Though Scholastic did not plan the parties, it set up a website to help connect people to local events.

On the night before the release, Scholastic closed off Mercer Street in Manhattan and set up activities for children, including a Moaning Myrtle bathroom and a Quidditch toss (though not played on flying broomsticks).

Anelli notes that the team also took a "cross-generational" approach. "It was not marketed as a kids book, nor as an adult book," she says. "It was represented as fun and magical."

Thousands of people - including scores of media - took a stroll down "Harry Potter Place." Scholastic also made "media stars" of 10 kids ages 9 to 17 who entered an essay contest about why they love reading the books. The winners had been flown to London for four nights, given copies of the book, and ultimately served as spokespeople.

"We had 48 hours of straight press," Good recalls. "It was just fun and it was all about reading. It was just a thrill."

Beyond the boy wizard

Potter mania has helped buoy Scholastic - which has struggled financially - and revitalized the children's book industry. But with only one book left in the series, the company is constantly thinking beyond the boy wizard.

For all the attention the series has received, though, Good notes that Harry Potter sales represent just 1% of the company's annual revenue.

"We just feel that that's a wonderful aspect of Scholastic," she says, "[but] there's a lot more happening still."

Creating a "one Scholastic" message out of its many divisions - including children's publishing, classroom magazines, entertainment, education, its internet division, and others - continues to challenge the PR team.

Still there's a common theme running through the divisions, and the company is trying to position itself as a go-to source on kids' issues, a trend-spotter of sorts. It publishes a biannual Kids' Trend Report during the summer and holiday seasons, guiding parents and educators to the hottest products for kids, from newborns to 12-year-olds.

Sinek, who serves as both spokeswoman and "trend-spotter," says that the project is about creating a single corporate package.

"The company exists somewhat in business silos," Good notes. "[The trend report is] a communications tool that crosses channels."

The PR team is also trying to position itself as a leader in children's education, whether by drawing kids to a homework-help website or sending Scholastic's chief academic media officer on an RMT to stress the importance of parental involvement in schoolwork.

The team can then tie those education-based tools to actual resources, such as workbooks, offered by Scholastic. "We are trying to bridge what we do from a content point to a product point," Sinek says.

Promoting literacy is another effort for the Scholastic team. The company this summer partnered with Woman's Day on full-page articles that ran in the May through September issues.

"The articles included interviews with Scholastic experts, book suggestions, sweepstake giveaways, and celebrity book picks," Good says. "The PR value was to reach more than 20 million readers among our targeted demographic: moms with kids ages 3 to 12."

"It's tough to get publicity for kids' books, so we go for a targeted approach," Moran adds. "We wouldn't pitch everything to NPR. We want that credibility when we call them."

"Read 180" is another Scholastic literacy program. Geared toward adolescents reading below grade level, it provides educators with print, technological, and professional development tools to reach older students.

That program, Good notes, similarly offers media opportunities for Scholastic's experts, who are available to give interviews on why some students struggle with reading and what schools can do about it.

"We really see ourselves in this role of making the home-school connection," Good says. "One of our key goals in our press efforts is to package our content with products in order to provide the press with the most resources."

The 20-person PR team works closely alongside marketing executives in each division of the company. They also have a direct link to the company's top leadership, with Good reporting to president and CEO Richard Robinson.

"There was always a senior executive in many of our meetings, listening, commenting, reacting," Goodman says. "When you're in PR, you like to see that because it shows support."

Most work is done in-house, although the corporate communications team also works with Bender/Helper Impact on licensed product promotions. Goodman Media helped brainstorm publicity ideas for the last two Harry Potter book launches and also works on Scholastic's TV properties.

Good laughs, though, when asked about the department's budget. She declined to disclose a figure, but said that it's "a lot less than you'd think."

Thinking past the classroom

The team is also challenged, therefore, to pack a punch on fewer dollars. "Democracy for Kids" was one of those initiatives. In the 2004 election year, Scholastic partnered with NBC News to educate kids about what it means to live in a democracy.

Seventy-five kid reporters attended campaign events and covered articles for Scholastic's classroom titles. The company also became the education partner of Rockefeller Center-based Democracy Plaza, a public exhibition of artifacts, photos, and videos.

"A textbook can't be updated every time there's breaking news," says Jennifer Slackman, director of corporate communications. "It was just the perfect way to bring in every element of the company."

These days, the classroom magazines are offering tips to parents on how to talk to children about disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The company is also engaging kids through its "Classroom Cares" program; for every 100 books a student reads, Scholastic has pledged to donate 100 books to displaced children.

Scholastic is also planning its 85th anniversary. Although outreach will be mostly internally focused, it is nevertheless an opportunity for the PR team to present a single message. "We're going to use the opportunity to remind people who we are as a company and how multifaceted we are," Good says.

PR contacts

VP of corporate comms Kyle Good

Senior director of corporate comms and media relations Sara Sinek

Director of corporate comms Jennifer Slackman

Director of publicity Kris Moran

Agencies Goodman Media International, Bender/Helper Impact

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