ITL #170 Volunteering for the greater good: boosting the profile of PR by assisting Rotary International

4 years, 3 months ago


Rotary International is renowned for its good works. Helping the organisation is an opportunity for IPRA members to support deserving causes while furthering understanding of strategic communications. By Jane Hammond.

Like so many international voluntary bodies, Rotary International puts extensive resources into the remarkable worldwide work which its 1.2million members, organised into 34,282 Rotary Clubs, carry out.

It is sad, therefore, that some of them do not devote enough resources to their strategic public relations work to make themselves household names for incredible achievement. This thought leadership essay makes recommendations about how IPRA members might help to change this situation. What is said here can apply equally to other service organisations such as Lions, Kiwis and so on.

Rotary’s most sensational achievement so far has been to enable the World Health Organisation, Unicef and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, to give children worldwide anti-polio vaccinations. Rotary Club members convey the vaccine to them. As a result, the polio virus has been eradicated in all but two countries in the world: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But how many people know about this campaign, End Polio Now? Not enough, because, arguably rightly, most of Rotary’s resources have been concentrated on doing the job rather than publicising it through strategic public relations.


Most of Rotary’s work is carried out on a voluntary basis by its members, leaving essential administration, including public relations, in the hands of very capable but relatively small staffs working at Rotary International’s HQ in the States and in localised establishments elsewhere. It is, however, a tall order to manage adequately the public relations services needed for Rotary members worldwide.

Considerable success

Most Rotary Club members have achieved considerable success in their careers; membership enables them to put something back into their communities. Rotary demands extensive commitment from its members: weekly attendance at meetings and hands-on work for deserving causes.

Individual clubs are encouraged to run their own public relations programmes, but unless they are fortunate enough to have professional practitioners as members, where can they obtain the professional advice to enable them to manage their strategic public relations?

Arguably, far too many business and professional people still do not really appreciate the importance of learning how to run strategic programmes as distinct from obtaining good publicity every so often in local and sometimes wider media. Few public relations practitioners join Rotary, partly I believe because this is a very competitive occupation which leaves many practitioners little time to get heavily involved in such organisations.

After the first 69 practitioners took the nationally recognised CAM Diploma in Public Relations in 1974 – I was one of them – there was a wave of optimism that organisations, whether voluntary, commercial or public sector, would take qualified professional public relations as seriously as legal and accountancy services. Alas, in many instances this has not happened. There is still far too much ignorance about what public relations is, about the fact that it is not a part of marketing and about the importance of adopting a strategic approach to implementing public relations programmes.

Opportunity to educate

Public relations practitioners must remedy this situation and unfortunately I believe that those anxious to educate the public about the value of professional public relations must come to terms with the fact that the only effective way to do this is, indeed, to do it. Here is an opportunity for members of IPRA, the world’s only worldwide public relations organisation, to offer their services in whatever way and to whatever extent they choose, to Rotary Clubs or other service organisations.

In doing so, they will be demonstrating the efficacy of professional rather than “seat of the pants” public relations. Any IPRA member volunteering should of course have several years of experience in an executive public relations role, whether as a consultant or a company executive, and preferably hold one of the internationally recognised professional public relations qualifications. Volunteers for this exercise should not be unqualified novices.

Colleagues tell me that things have moved on when it comes to pro bono work, consultants being encouraged always to work for organisations that have budgets for public relations. Of course I agree. In principle I would argue against any pro bono work at all, except for one thing. Unfortunately, it is the case that things have regrettably not moved on in the 36 years since I became a consultant when it comes to appreciation of professional public relations expertise.

IPRA might consider running a pilot scheme of encouraging pro bono advice to Rotary Clubs on the strict understanding that once mutual introductions have been made, practitioner and Rotary Club should agree on the conditions. This scheme, if successful, might then apply to other service organisations and charities. (Rotary’s charity, the Rotary Foundation, is the largest in the world.)

Benefits to Rotary Club members are obvious. But I believe such an approach could also lead to greater understanding of strategic public relations. Such an approach would give professionally qualified and experienced public relations practitioners an opportunity to educate business and professional people about what strategic public relations is and how it can help any organisation to develop and prosper.

For a start, IPRA members willing to join this pilot project might offer to address clubs after their weekly meetings. The IPRA member might, for instance, offer to give a talk for, say, 15 to 20 minutes, allowing for questions, on what public relations is. A sequence of three or four talks might cover planning, media relations, social media and event management. Or the member might even offer to run a half-day seminar at a weekend.


Lessons from Bulgaria

One very ambitious approach to offering Rotary Clubs the sort of service I have in mind has already been adopted by IPRA Past President Maria Gergova. As Managing Director of the Bulgarian public relations consultancy United Partners (UP), she has arranged for UP’s New Business Account Manager Iva Grigorova, who is a member of the Rotary Club of Sofia-Balkan, to give professional advice to other Rotary Clubs in Bulgaria. All Bulgaria’s Rotary Clubs are grouped into one District, which covers the whole country. The programme Iva is managing will, inter alia, show club members how to identify their publics and how to plan projects, campaigns and events.


Where relevant, UP has helped individual clubs to develop a communication strategy for annual programme they run every year, including in one case commemoration of a historical event which attracts many tourists from Bulgaria and abroad. UP helped with media relations for the event: interviews, news management and issuing news releases after the event.


A more ambitious aspect of this cooperation will enable Bulgaria Rotary District to present both the nation of Bulgaria in general and Rotary Clubs in Bulgaria at Rotary International’s convention in Seoul this summer. The partnership continues for another year.


This collaboration between UP and Rotary is enormously time-consuming and professionally demanding, particularly where no fees change hands. However, a welcome by-product of this collaboration is that UP is already receiving business enquiries from Rotarians.


IPRA members who attended the Association’s 2015 World Congress in Johannesburg may recall a champagne breakfast at which the above ideas were introduced to members, who learned how such co-operation can turn a spotlight onto professional public relations and possibly lead to new business, although of course such developments must be regarded as a possible by-product rather than the main raison d’etre.



The website address for Rotary International is


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The Author

Jane Hammond

Jane Hammond, FCAM FCIPR MIPRA, is a journalist and public relations management training consultant and lecturer. She edits Rotary’s quarterly magazine, Rotary in London, and sits on London Rotary’s District Communications Committee. She is a judge for IPRA’s Golden World Awards, holds the CAM Diploma with Distinction, was a CAM examiner for two decades and is a Fellow of CAM and the CIPR, as well as a member of IPRA.

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