Award-winning marketing campaign elevates brand during pandemic

Golden Apple Case Study - Integrated Communications Strategy

In far too many schools, particularly those in economically challenged communities, there simply are not enough high-quality educators to meet the demand for open teaching positions. In Illinois, the lack of educators entering classrooms has become a full-blown crisis. At the beginning of the 2020 school year, there were more than 1,900 unfilled teaching positions in Illinois. While in the past 10 years, colleges of education in Illinois universities experienced a 50% decline in enrollment.

The Harbinger Group’s goal was to drive awareness of our client Golden Apple’s work to elevate the teaching profession and meaningfully address the teacher shortage in Illinois by leveraging the organization’s annual Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching & Leadership. One of the most prestigious honors in education, the annual Golden Apple Awards honor 10 Illinois teachers and one or more school leaders for their extraordinary impact in their school communities. Golden Apple has been honoring teachers through the awards program for more than 30 years.

This campaign won three public relations/marketing awards in 2021, including:

  • Gold Stevie – American Business Awards
  • Silver – Publicity Club of Chicago Golden Trumpet Awards
  • Bronze – Bulldog PR Awards



The Harbinger Group’s strategy was to leverage the various public-facing announcements and finalist stories generated throughout the Awards process, as well as the events at which educators learn they have been selected as a Golden Apple Award winner, to secure media coverage that increases awareness of Golden Apple and their work to elevate the importance of the teaching profession statewide.

Given that the select educators are surprised with the Awards, much planning takes place to keep the news confidential. In 2019, as in previous years, the recipients were surprised in their classroom by Golden Apple, family members, colleagues, students, etc. In 2020, the planning process was even more complex due to the COVID environment and teachers working remotely. Instead of the typical classroom surprises, the Golden Apple team orchestrated some surprise visits via Zoom with colleagues, students and family members virtually attending. Other surprises took place via outdoor parades in front of the recipients’ schools.

This change in format required us to refresh our strategy to secure media coverage. Typically, in-person surprises at the schools are a significant draw to local media. There is no way to replace the palpable excitement of this experience, but our recommendation to shift to virtual surprises where necessary and drive-by parades when possible provided the opportunity for the surprises to take place in a way that could still be covered by the media.


Awards finalists were selected from a pool of more than 730 applicants after having gone through an intensive process of applications, classroom visits and interviews. In advance of the announcement of finalists, The Harbinger Group prepared expansive media lists targeting high-value outlets in the communities where the finalists teach and in the communities where they live, as well as individualized pitches that incorporated information about each finalist gleaned from reviewing their award applications. For each finalist, we prepared an asset library with photos of the finalist to support our media materials.

The public facing launch of the campaign was a press release announcing the finalists distributed to the Illinois newsline via PR Newswire. As soon as the press release crossed the wire, we began personal outreach to media outlets on our list by email and phone, providing additional information as requested and coordinating interviews for finalists and Golden Apple representatives. The ask was to cover the personal and professional stories of the educators as they are honored as a finalist for the prestigious award. The same process was repeated when winners were selected from the pool of finalists. 

As mentioned previously, the surprise visits during which a select group of finalists learn they have been chosen as a winner of the Award presented a significant barrier in 2020. Traditionally, each award recipient is surprised in their classroom or school. Recognizing that this would not be possible because of COVID-19 restrictions, we pivoted to the virtual surprises and drive-by parades referenced before. For virtual surprises, where there was not a physical event a reporter could attend, we captured recordings of the virtual surprise and shared them with media outlets, along with photos of the winner, background information about them and why they were selected as an award winner. Press releases about each award winner were also developed and pitched to target media who had not previously expressed interest in covering the Awards.


We greatly exceeded our initial goal for the campaign, securing 385 earned media placements spread among all target outlet types. That represented a 114 percent increase year-over-year from 2019. Within that coverage, there were 70 links back to the Golden Apple website, helping drive additional awareness of the organization and creating opportunities for future donations and remarketing. Additionally, links to the placements were shared on social media approximately 68,100 times.

To maximize the value of the earned media placements to help increase awareness of Golden Apple, we leveraged them across a variety of marketing channels, including email and social media. This resulted in 30,700 shares of earned media placements posted by Golden Apple on social media, a 47 percent increase year-over-year in social media engagements during the Awards process, and a 20 percent increase year-over-year in new followers across social media platforms.