HMH: Destination Detroit

Challenge

During a time when Detroit Public Schools (DPS) was battling record-low graduation rates and a shrinking student body, the district signed a $40 million contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) to improve student performance through educational resources and redesigned curriculum. Despite the success of HMH partnerships in other struggling school districts and the fact that this project was funded entirely by federal stimulus dollars, the deal with DPS was met with some contention from the community. Detroit media coverage highlighted criticisms on everything from the high contract price tag, to whether the program could generate results, to questioning the credibility of the win for HMH. Additionally, HMH’s East Coast staff knew little about the plight of DPS and needed to be enfranchised with its new largest client – and quickly. HMH was looking for a way to emotionally connect its employees to the project and demonstrate to DPS constituents and the surrounding community that HMH is committed to the district. As a result, Stratacomm planned an emotional, grassroots rally to kick off an unprecedented, one-day mass volunteer effort that would energize and excite HMH employees and attract media attention, while doing so in just seven days.

Our Approach

Stratacomm helped orchestrate communications for a one-day “Day of Service” to formally kick off the unique partnership between HMH and DPS. The Day of Service began with a morning rally followed by 200 HMH senior executives dispatched into 23 Detroit schools to assist with critical need areas (professional development, reading and math tutoring, technology support, grant writing, adult literacy, library organization, and building maintenance).

Working closely with DPS and HMH, and evolving on the fly when challenges arose, Stratacomm transformed an auditorium of educators and students into a sea of hope and inspiration. To create visual interest for broadcast media, Stratacomm seated the 200 HMH employees right beside the students, and team captains entered the auditorium with tall, vertical signs emblazoned with their school’s name. Additionally, Stratacomm orchestrated a special ceremony to symbolically unite HMH employees with DPS by having a DPS regional superintendent call up each team captain to run up on stage, step through a blue door and shout, “I’m In!,” sign in hand. The emotion of the rally was especially palpable when, in an unscripted moment following stirring remarks by the school’s principal about the tenacity of his students, the HMH employees gave the student body a standing ovation.

Results

Coverage in the Detroit media market was of utmost importance to HMH. Following the event, Stratacomm went into media relations mode for the volunteer portion of the day, sending television crews to schools throughout the district. Ultimately, the Destination: Detroit Day of Service generated significant media hits in outlets such as The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, TIME magazine’s Assignment Detroit blog, as well as a sweep of all three local television affiliates. But most importantly, all the coverage was positive, turning the tide on past negative stories about the HMH contract. Stratacomm also secured a half-hour segment with the popular local news program, “Spotlight on the News.”

Additionally, Stratacomm helped HMH forge an ongoing relationship with DPS as evidenced by the more than 1,500 hours of community service that continues on today. Stratacomm is now helping HMH develop a long-term outreach plan with the district to build on the momentum from the volunteer day and keep the company and school district linked on a personal level throughout the program implementation.