How Rotary International scored coverage for an ‘old’ topic

The service organization has been working for decades to eradicate polio from the face of earth. So how did it land coverage in The New York Times, National Geographic and other major outlets?

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal, Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Rotary International is pushing a spectacular success story: Medical science has nearly eliminated polio, the crippling, sometimes lethal scourge of countless generations.

“There’s only been one other human disease, which is smallpox, that’s ever been eradicated through human intervention,” says Petina Dixon-Jenkins, Rotary International’s manager of corporate communications.

How, though, to get reporters to cover the issue? After all, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was released for general use in the U.S. in 1955. Rotary, a volunteer service organization, has been working to eradicate polio since 1988. The battle isn’t yet won and involves vaccinations, which are so commonplace, resulting in a topic that might strike a reporter as ho-hum.

That’s where PR savvy steps in. In her Ragan Training session, “How to build a newsroom in your organization that lands you coverage in The New York Times,” Dixon-Jenkins tells how the service club scored coverage in major publications. This helped pushed its message: If we let down our guard, the disease could make a comeback. Let’s finish the job.

The service club’s communications staff produces content in eight languages, requiring cultural sensitivity. Rotary wants to spread the message that while polio is 99.9 percent eradicated, now’s the time to finish it off.

Rotary has brought vaccines to remote, hostile regions such as Pakistan. Other organizations-such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are also active in the fight.

In the time Rotary has pushed for eradication, reported cases dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to 19 in 2016 as of August. One great asset of Rotary’s is its diverse membership of professionals: More than 66 percent of its 1.2 million members live outside the U.S., Dixon-Jenkins says.

Polio affects children under the age of 5, causing paralysis and even death. In recent generations, few Americans have experienced it. (The disease crippled my own brother, who was adopted from South Korea in 1964, and left him needing crutches and a leg brace to get around.)

So how to get media coverage? Here are some ways Rotary did that:

Use celebrities to help you ‘own’ milestones

Kristen Bell, the actress, has been active in charitable causes, and Rotary asked if she could lend her voice to the anti-polio fight.

Dixon-Jenkins says Rotary asked the actress, “Is this something you can talk about? This is going to be the next preventable disease that’s going to be wiped out. Even if you don’t know what polio is, this is going to be a big deal for global health and any other heath initiative that you care about.”

She agreed, and her publicist managed to secure interest from People.

Make a video—and get help pushing it

Rotary produced a 30-second video featuring Bell, along with famous people such as philanthropist Bill Gates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actress Archie Panjabi, among others. She says, “We are this close to ending polio—to making sure no child suffers from this crippling disease ever again. All we need is you.”

The call to action? Share the video, also donate and help end this scourge.

These well-known names then promoted the video on their channels.

“That got tremendous pickup and got way more attention than it would have been just us talking amongst ourselves or talking within our network,” Dixon-Jenkins says.

Know your reporters

Every journalist—and every PR pro who used to be a reporter—is familiar with off-topic pitches. How well do you know who covers your topic?

Rotary targeted not only reporters who cover global health, but those who are influential in their field. One of them was Jeffrey Kluger, a science reporter and editor at Time magazine and author of the book “Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio.”

By keeping him informed, Rotary ended up being featured in a story he wrote on the push for eradication.

“Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year,” stated the subhead on his 2014 story. “But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard.”

He even participates in Rotary events discussing the eradication of the disease.

Use your on-the-ground resources

Reporters often can find the high-level expertise they need. What’s harder is locating sources who are affected by an issue, problem or disease.

When Rotary learned that a New York Times reporter was going to Pakistan to report on polio in 2013, the organization put him in touch with a local Rotarian who was fighting the disease. Anger at the U.S. over drone strikes and other issues had set back anti-polio efforts there. The Taliban banned vaccinations and radicals were murdering vaccinators.

But a local Rotary member knew the families of vaccinators who had been killed. “Our Rotary guy was able to open those doors for him, get him in the room, and give him access that some of the other agencies couldn’t,” Dixon-Jenkins says.

The resulting story stated that Rotarians “work in places that terrify government officials. In an industrial neighborhood in Karachi, where both gangs and the Taliban hold sway after dark, Abdul Waheed Khan oversaw a Rotary polio clinic in his school, Naunehal Academy. A big, gregarious man, he angered the Taliban by admitting girls to his academy and offering a liberal arts education instead of only Koran study. His only security was local teenagers who ride motorcycles beside his car to keep anyone from pulling up alongside.”

Pitch an innovation angle

Vaccination is an activity everyone is familiar with and billions have gone through. So Rotary’s vaccinating kids, a grizzled newshound might think, ‘What’s new about that?’ This is doubly true when The New York Times and Time have already plowed that field.

So Rotary pitched a story with a digital angle to National Geographic, resulting in a story earlier this year, “Cell Coverage: Reaching Pakistan’s Children with the Polio Vaccine.”

“We took a look at that and pitched that as a science innovation story, about how technology is helping science,” Dixon-Jenkins says.

The heavyweight magazine was intrigued enough to revisit the topic with a photo update in July.

Arrange field visits

Rotary paid the airfare and hotel costs for freelance reporters, sending them to India and Nigeria to write about polio vaccinations. (Staff reporters of most publications cannot accept freebies, including airfare.) The organization also made use of its celebrity ambassadors to generate ink.

When Rotary learned that Archie Panjabi was visiting family in India, a PR pro contacted her to ask, “Is it possible for you to go and immunize some children?”

That generated coverage in “a totally different realm for us”: fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamor, Dixon-Jenkins says.

“All these fashion publications that would never talk about Rotary, would never talk about polio eradication, are actually talking about it,” Dixon-Jenkins says.

Maybe we will succeed in wiping that virus from the face of the earth after all. Parents will breathe a sigh of relief. I know my brother will be pleased.


(Image via)

Topics: PR

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