As a public relations professional, I have always believed you cannot put a gloss on something if it does not live up to the image you are trying to create. No amount of public relations or marketing activity will make a poor service or product any better. But you have a good chance of achieving the image you want if the service or product is good.
I had a senior PR role in the Welsh water industry immediately post privatisation and its image could not have been worse. Privatising our public utilities was not a popular policy. It didn’t help that Governments of all political colours had seriously underinvested in our water and sewerage infrastructure for decades and it was quite literally collapsing under the strain.
I am not writing about the merits or demerits of private investment here. I can only say that money was available to invest in improvements and customer service training. Customers began to see the improvements to their service from a combination of these two factors. Quietly and subtly the image of the water industry improved as result.
Similarly when I worked in the rail industry, the improvements from infrastructure investment improved punctuality of the service to the highest levels in decades. As more trains were on time there were less negative stories in the media. There’s still a lot of work to be done to improve our rail service but there is no doubt that their image is better than it was.
Now I am involved with the voluntary service organisation Rotary International.
Rotary International’s motto is “Service Above Self”, and this is demonstrated by both their international and local community initiatives. When Rotary International started End Polio in 1988 there were over 1,000 cases of polio per day. During the next 27 years partners such as the World Health Organisation and more latterly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came on board with the result that there is now less than one case of polio per week.
Yet Rotary International doesn’t always get the publicity it deserves – certainly not in the UK. Recent news reports failed to even mention Rotary when they reported that polio was on the verge of being eradicated.
Unfortunately in Britain and Ireland there’s still a strong perception of Rotary as being a gentlemen’s luncheon club. How can Rotary in Britain and Ireland counter this? Certainly not by clubs who refuse to move to a later time slot attract younger business people? And not by the exclusively male clubs who make it difficult for women to join them.
The saviour of Rotary in Britain and Ireland is going to be the clubs like Maidenhead Bridge who are breaking all the old “self-imposed rules”. They meet only twice a month and not for a meal but for coffee. Their average age is in the 40’s and not the 70’s – and partners and kids are welcomed to their meeting. And there are other new Rotary club models such as e-clubs and satellite clubs that are starting up. They want to serve above their self and are slowly chipping away at the Rotary mould. If they succeed it means that the good work of Rotary can continue well into the future.