ARC takes message straight to school

The American Reading Co. is overcoming many obstacles in campaign to help US kids read better

For a small corporation like the American Reading Company (ARC), the goal is simple, but the challenge is enormous. How do you introduce a textbook program into school districts to help elevate reading levels when few districts are willing to "gamble" on a small company and its programs?

Through either force of habit or a tendency toward caution, most district superintendents and department heads will go through a representative at a better-known company, pick one textbook, and plug it into the curriculum. But one of the ARC's goals is to offer something more comprehensive and, starting this year, better promote its offerings to build increased market share.

Jane Hileman, CEO of ARC, says she is first and foremost an educator, and that when she launched the company in 1998, its goal was primarily to enhance learning.

"Our goal is to have every child in the US reading on or above their grade level," she says. "We're an education-driven company."

But the challenge goes beyond just overcoming schools' predisposition to work with bigger companies. After seeing 60% growth in its first four years in business, ARC has seen a slowdown due to what Hileman says are new restrictions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Under the restrictions, individual states must show they are raising students' performance through standardized tests that NCLB critics say force educators to "teach to the test," crimping their willingness to try new materials or methods.

To help overcome these obstacles, ALC recently hired Exemplar Strategic Communications to develop PR measures that open lines of communication with educational professionals and show them that ARC's products can help achieve their various goals.

On the surface, the King of Prussia, PA-based ARC looks like a small textbook company with a catalog of titles brandished by a team of sales representatives. But more than just providing texts for all subjects, the company also offers a comprehensive color-coded system that rates thousands of titles according to distinct reading levels, from yellow, the lowest, to gold, the highest.

Users of the system can assess a student's reading ability, assign the student a color, and then allow the student a freer range of titles to read. The philosophy is that the students will eagerly make the leap from reading books they have to read to ones they want to read, and educators will be able to track their progress through the color system.

The system, Hileman believes, not only separates ARC from competitors, but could also help close the US achievement gap.

"What we're doing is putting a framework in place similar to Weight Watchers," Hileman adds. "We're putting a framework for families who don't have reading in the home. We're talking about changing culture."

To change this culture and promote its offerings, ARC developed a program called the "100 Book Challenge," in which participating students make a pledge to read 30 minutes per day every day, with rewards for students as they progress. The range of titles offered through the program, which is now used in hundreds of schools around the US, allows students to learn their individual subjects while advancing at their own pace.

"The large education companies put out a textbook," says Hileman. "It was the solution for 100 years. That's not [going to] work with kids now. Reading levels are all over the place now more than ever."

Now ARC will be working over the coming months to more aggressively and creatively promote ARC's educational measurements, says Exemplar president and chief strategist Patrick Riccards, who works with ARC's SVP of marketing Meg Roe.

"A lot of the education business goes to a very small group of very large companies," says Riccards. "Smaller companies have a hard time gaining traction because they do not have the research behind it. The beauty of [ARC] is they've got that research."

Mainly, the company will use "happy customers to tell our story," says Roe, with a focus on new media and social networking that builds on its already extensive positive word of mouth, allowing ARC to tell more of a philanthropic story than competitors.

"A lot of companies do great work, and unfortunately people don't know about them," Riccards says. "It is one of the terrific communications challenges. At the end of the day, you're not just selling literature. If you do your job well, more kids are learning to read. And that's a powerful message."

At a glance:

Company: American Reading Company

President/CEO: Jane Hileman

King of Prussia, PA

2007 Revenue:
$12.9 million

2007 Marketing Budget: $3.9 million. That includes marketing, PR, and advertising, including salaries

Key Trade publications:
Education Week, The Reading Teacher, Educational Leadership

Marcomms Team: Meg Roe, SVP of marketing; Patrick Riccards, president, Exemplar Strategic Communications (ESC)

PR agency: ESC

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