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.
When I had a senior public relations role in the Welsh water industry immediately post privatisation – 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.
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 its End Polio initiative 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, where news reports often fail to mention Rotary when they cover the immense progress of polio eradication.
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 not because they don’t take women (legally they cannot do this) but they make them most unwelcome.
But many traditional clubs still do a lot of good work in the local and international communities and we want to see this good work continue on. Many of these traditional clubs do not discourage new members but their style may not suit people who are time poor. So many have seen the advantages of starting new satellite clubs for younger or newly retired people who may have been put by the more traditional model. And new style clubs are forming like Maidenhead Bridge. They completely dispensed with 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. Slowly but surely the old mould of Rotary is being reformed and – so long as the pace quickens – it bodes well for the future.