by Paul Kiser
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On October 16th, our Rotary District (5190) will hold the second annual Public Relations (PR) seminar. It is a difficult topic because PR is a vital component to all aspects of Club operations, especially Membership recruitment and retention; however, for very ‘human’ reasons many members/clubs may not ready to listen to many of the key concepts because they are not ready to face the reality of the current situation.
To understand the resistance to the topic I need to refer to the 1969 book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying and her model of the grieving process. Her book became a major work in the fields of psychology and counseling for decades and while many experts now reject the idea of ‘stages’ of grieving, her model serves to remind us that people are influenced by their emotional state and some information will not be easily accepted when change intersects with tradition.
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
In the book, Kübler-Ross proposes that the grieving process involves five stages that help us recover from personal crisis back to a more balanced life where the incident or loss does not rule our lives and influence our decision-making. The stages are: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, and finally, 5) Acceptance.
So what is happening in Rotary that would cause a member or a club to be in crisis? Two issues come to mind.
Membership in Crisis
First, Rotary has been battling a significant membership issue for almost 15 years. For example, in 2005, Rotary Zone 23 (now re-zoned as Zone 25) had 568 clubs consisting of 33,921 members and five years later (2009) Zone 23 consisted of 33,304 members in 588 clubs. While the number of clubs had increased by 20, total membership had decreased by over 600 people. This is only about a two percent loss over five years; however, the problem is that, 1) this has been a consistent trend for most of the last 15 years, and 2) every Rotary International President for the last nine years has pushed for increased membership as part of the key programs for his year.
The facts are simple: Rotary is bleeding membership and clubs are getting smaller (in Zone 23, an average of 3 members smaller over five years.) In seven years Rotary has brought in 1.2 million members…and lost 1.2 million members. Membership in North America, and many other western countries is on the decline. If current trends continue, over the next 15 to 20 years many community Rotary clubs will shrink until they are no longer relevant and then disband. Many small clubs are already facing this problem today and have less than five years to solve their membership crisis.
A New Business World
The second issue is external to the Rotary club. Business and communication is undergoing a rapid change and all the rules are changing. The Internet and, in particular, Social Media have challenged how business operates in a world where one person can be heard by millions, and if that person is talking about your product or service you have to be plugged in and listening or be lost in ignorance of what your customers and potential customers know about you. This new world demands personal involvement, yet many people (especially older business people) don’t want to be forced to participate in Social Media tools that put them and their company up for public scrutiny. There is a growing division between older professionals that tend to reject Social Media tools and younger professionals that tend to accept them. Guess in which category most Rotarians fit?
Action Obstructed by Grieving
Public Relations offers potential solutions to both issues. By becoming aware of the Club’s public image (how non-members perceive Rotary) the members can adapt their PR plan to maximize the value of the club projects and programs to help non-members understand the purpose and scope of Rotary. Members can also be aware of behaviors and information that reinforce negative stereotypes that non-members may have about Rotary, then avoid situations that might damage the reputation of the club. PR can also help members understand and adapt to the Social Media tools and use them to the best advantage for the club…and their business.
The problem is that discussion of these solutions is premature when someone is grieving. It is akin to telling the man who just lost his wife that, “there are plenty of fish in the ocean.” The combination of scrambling to understand a new business environment while facing a slow bleed of Rotary club members has many Rotarians in the one of the stages of grieving.
For some it is the first stage: Denial:
Stages of Coping with Loss
“There is no membership crisis. The world is the same today as it always has been. Our club is fine, we’ve been around for decades and we will continue to be here for decades to come.”
For others it is Anger:
“This is our club! We don’t need to change, if someone wants to belong to our club they need to change to our way of doing things! Don’t tell me what to do, I’ve been around a lot longer than you! Most of our members aren’t even on Facebook!”
For some it is Bargaining:
“We need QUALITY members, not more members. What help are we going to get to make these changes? How do you know this will work? How do I know this is not just a waste of time?”
And for some it is Depression:
Of all of the stages, a club should fear depression the most. Apathy and membership are never good combinations; however, for some members who are overwhelmed by change, the depression over the issues will open the door for them to quietly leave Rotary. In some cases, a member who is entrenched in tradition may not be able to accept change and leaving Rotary is the only option, but hopefully we can be aware that grieving change is part of the process and present the message in a way that will help members to the final stage of grieving, Acceptance.