ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: Success stories help Peace Corps reinforce its ranks

A mention in the 2002 State of the Union address buoyed the Peace Corps' strong image, but also prompted a ramped-up recruiting drive - one that PR will play a key role in facilitating.

A mention in the 2002 State of the Union address buoyed the Peace Corps' strong image, but also prompted a ramped-up recruiting drive - one that PR will play a key role in facilitating.

Most people remember President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address for his introduction of the term "axis of evil." As much of a surprise as that was, he also took the opportunity to call on the Peace Corps to double its volunteers over the next five years. "America needs citizens to extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world," he said. The mention was great for the Peace Corps' image, and applications rose 15% last year. But the call to action also means that the Peace Corps must work even harder to energize its recruiting efforts. "We have a plan that we put together for about 20% growth each year for the next five years," says Barbara Daly, press secretary in the Peace Corps press office. And PR will play a major role in that. Daly and two other staff members run the national press operation out of Washington, DC. Her office is strictly press relations - a separate communications department handles advertising, publications, video production, and the website (www.peacecorps.gov). The press office emits a steady stream of news releases, from announcing events, the director's travels, or that new volunteers are being sworn in. But the full story is often told outside the DC headquarters by each of the 11 regional recruitment offices around the country, each having a "public affairs specialist" who deals with local media. These staffers, who report to the regional manager, also handle the local and college ads and marketing aimed at getting people to attend general information meetings about volunteering. Part of that activity includes having booths at college career fairs and other events. All these functions serve one purpose: to recruit volunteers. "Everything we do is geared toward recruitment," Daly says. Daly has been with the agency since June. Prior to that, she was manager of communications and public affairs at the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Orange County, CA. Daly says that despite the Peace Corps' great name recognition, it faces a big promotional challenge because many people still think of it in the past tense - as a relic of the 1960s - when it's very much alive and well. Since its founding in 1961, more than 168,000 volunteers have served, working in fields from education to agriculture to information technology to business development. There are currently 7,000 volunteers spread out across 70 nations. Though the Peace Corps hasn't reached its goal of 20% growth in volunteers over the past year, it is not complaining about its 15% rise in applications, either. By comparison, London-based Volunteer Service Overseas, the British counterpart to the Peace Corps, has seen a 40% drop in UK volunteers since September 11, which it attributed to "fear of global insecurity." Volunteers' vital PR role Especially after September 11, the Peace Corps plays an important role in boosting the US' image abroad. In some rural areas, a Peace Corps volunteer is the only American the people will ever meet. "Without being political, just the nature of us being there allows us to put a face on America," Daly says. On the home front, Daly and her team look out for ink-generating opportunities. For Valentine's Day, they did a press release on couples serving together. They promoted the Peace Corps' 42nd anniversary on February 28. And they recently worked with Live and Learn, a newsletter from AARP's National Retired Teachers Association, on a piece about older volunteers who were educators. In fact, volunteers - past, present, and future - are also the Peace Corps' most important PR pitch for recruiting domestically. Typically, journalists want to write about volunteers from their geographic, demographic, or professional area. The public affairs specialists dig into the agency's database to find the right subject for the reporter. A major press-relations opportunity presents itself on the local level, when volunteers leave to go "in country." They fill out a "hometowner" - a questionnaire about where they're going and what they'll be doing. The local public affairs specialist then sends these forms to the volunteers' hometown papers, and they invariably get written about. When they return, the local paper writes about what they did. Michaela Brehm, public affairs specialist in the LA office, which covers Southern California and Arizona, does a lot of editorial board meetings and hometowners. She recently worked on a story with the (Torrance, CA) Daily Breeze about a Palos Verdes, CA resident currently serving in Micronesia. "We're basically the recruiting arm for the Peace Corps," Brehm says. "Any press we get is to bring awareness, and to inspire people to say, 'I can do that.'" What better way than touting the oldest Peace Corps volunteer, who is 84 and from Southern California, and scheduled to return in July from service in Romania. "When she comes back, I'm definitely going to pitch that as a story," Brehm says. Reaching out in many ways A key goal for bringing in more volunteers is to reach out to a more diverse audience, both ethnically and in terms of age - currently, only 7% are over the age of 50. The Peace Corps has met with leaders and journalists from ethnic groups across the US, and plans more such gatherings. "We're currently on zillions of campuses, but there are other ways we need to reach out," Daly says. Daly claims that interest in the Peace Corps is high among journalists, who often call the agency rather than wait to be pitched. And yet, because there's no "Peace Corps beat," it's sometimes difficult for the agency's PR people to develop media relationships. Scot Roskelley, the public affairs specialist in the Chicago office, which covers a six-state area, previously did PR for the Journal of the American Medical Association. "I knew every healthcare reporter worldwide," he says. "Here, it could be a senior-citizen story, an education story, a political story, a metro story...." "In a city like Chicago, with so much going on, it's hard for a group like the Peace Corps to get noticed all the time," says Lara Weber, news editor of RedEye, the Chicago Tribune's tabloid edition aimed at younger readers. "But I think they fit into a lot of stories. There's not a lack of awareness of the Peace Corps. There are several former volunteers at the Tribune." In fact, Weber is one of them. Last summer, she returned from Zambia, where she developed HIV/AIDS awareness programs. She wrote two pieces for the Tribune about her experience. "Scot keeps an extensive database of where all the volunteers are and what they're doing," Weber says. "He was aggressive in keeping in touch with me. It was natural with my journalism background that I would help." Daly says the media relations work is friendly because "most everyone likes us." And yet, the Peace Corps does encounter some sticky situations, such as when it has to evacuate a country because it becomes unsafe, for example, due to a civil uprising. Even then, things seem to run smoothly. Each Peace Corps unit in every country has an "emergency action plan," and communications - for contacting families, Congress, and the media - is part of that. In September, the Peace Corps evacuated the Ivory Coast, where it had 133 volunteers. "We wouldn't have volunteers in there now, given all that's going on," Daly says. "I hate to use the term 'crisis' because it was very controlled. We do it so as not to be crisis communications. But that would probably be the closest to a crisis situation we've faced." But for now, and most assuredly well beyond the end of the world's current troubles, the Peace Corps will remain focused on using the media to build its volunteer base. And through their efforts, perhaps such crises will become a thing of the past. ----- PR contacts Press secretary Barbara Daly Deputy press secretary Marta Metelko Press assistant Cassandra Champion Outside PR agencies None PR budget $72,000 (for HQ press operation)

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