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by Paul Kiser
USA PDT  [Twitter: ] [Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Skype:kiserrotary or 775.624.5679]

Paul Kiser - Rotary Public Relations Chair - District 5190

In 2008, Rotary International did a focus group study to discover the perception of non-Rotarians about our organization. It was an eye opener. In order to avoid a conditioned or biased response to the questions the participants of the study were unaware of who funded the study . While no cities in the United States of America were included in the focus group study, it is the best information we have to date about the Public Image (what other people think) of Rotary.  At the risk of airing dirty laundry, here’s what we learned:

Study Finding:
People are very cautious about ‘volunteering’

“In most cases individuals are inclined to volunteer, however they are very intent on maintaining enough ‘personal’ time, and they do not consider humanitarian efforts or volunteering as something for which they would give up their ‘personal’ time.”

What may look like fun to some may be scary to others

This is important to note because most Rotarians often remark that ‘giving back’ and ‘service’ is one of the reasons they belong to Rotary, and we tend to readily share with prospective members that volunteering is one of the positive aspects of joining a club. However, this seems to be something we LEARN AFTER we become Rotarians. By approaching potential members with an emphasis on volunteering, we may be dissuading, not persuading them.

We have to remember that all Rotarians usually pick the volunteer activities in which they participate based on their passion for the need. While ‘Service Above Self’ is our motto, the magic of Rotary is that most clubs offer a wide variety of projects and programs, which allow the individual member to choose how and where to invest their time, money, and/or energy. This makes volunteerism a rewarding experience, rather than an obligation. My experience is that every successful new project or program has had a single member who was passionate about the need and was able to excite the other members to join in. The great feeling we have about volunteering is something we learn by experiencing.

Study Finding:
Mistrust of Large Organizations

“An issue that came up in all three regions was the mistrust or skepticism towards large organizational structures …. Respondents also noted that there is a tendency to view smaller organizations as more effective in getting things accomplished at the local level.”

This finding is what caused me to start using the phrase, “All Public Relations is local.” A big billboard about Rotary International will not be as effective as a one license plate holder driving around town on the back of a member’s car. The face of Rotary is and always been the face of our members and those who benefit from our projects and programs at the local level. This is not to minimize the value of our regional and international involvement, but when talking to someone who might be interested in Rotary, they want to know about the club, not the mega-organization.

Study Finding:
Rotary’s Public Image

How Rotary is perceived: business men, elite, secretive, older, wealthy, largely based on formal rules, inflexible, not sure that women are allowed into local clubs, associated with Free Masons, not ‘trendy’, not ‘sexy’.”

Every time I have presented these findings to Rotarians I have had some uncomfortable laughter, some squirming in the seats, and/or a small gasp. Deep down we know that these perceptions are valid. While we often become blind to the Public Image of our club, by visiting another Rotary club that is more than ten years old we often see how someone could have the perceptions listed above.

I have observed members in some clubs behaving in ways that would not normally be acceptable in a public environment. Professionalism sometimes gives way to fraternity-type behavior with rude jokes, harsh ribbing, and political references that are inappropriate in a business setting. Last year I listened to a speech by a prominent Past District Governor who began by making an offensive political-laced joke about our nation’s President and his wife. All of these behaviors are contrary to Rotary’s mission and our organization’s Constitution.

The challenge is to:  1) accept that we have a Public Image problem, 2) identify the behaviors and actions by clubs and their members that reinforce a negative Public Image, 3) educate the members, 4) perform a Public Image makeover. This process may begin with the Board of Directors, but progress will only be achieved with the acceptance and cooperation of every member regardless of position.

We have one uniting goal in the next 24 months, and that is to make Rotary ‘sexy’ again. Rotary was ‘sexy’ when Paul Harris and three other people created our organization 105 years ago. Within five years cities around the nation were falling all over themselves to start a Rotary club in their community. The unique combination of an emphasis on ethical business practices, friendship, and reaching out to others was the fire that made Rotary’s lamp so bright. It’s time we fueled that fire again.

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