Take a broader view: volunteers speak up

From Iraq to London schools, PROs are donating their time to help others – a practice that also benefits their own careers. Suzy Bashford reports

As chief press officer at the Department for International Development, Vickie Sheriff does a lot of travelling – she recently found herself in Pakistan after last month's devastating earthquake.

But this pales in comparison with her volunteering pursuits, which have seen the nine-year Army reservist (she is now addressed as Major) serve time in Iraq. She claims the skills she picked up in
the war zone have been well applied in her day job.

In Pakistan, government ministers looked to Sheriff for advice on their comms strategy, while international journalists demanded regular updates on what the UK was doing to help the beleaguered country. Sheriff says her experience of volunteering in Iraq – where she was responsible for looking after war correspondents – was perfect preparation for this type of media relations, and better than any training course she has ever attended.

'Through my volunteering I've been in situations where my abilities – to network, lead and operate in a team – have been tested to the limit. These experiences have built my confidence,' she says.

Personal development
The experience of volunteering does not have to be as extreme as that of Sheriff's, but  PROs are finding that offering their PR skills assists not only their chosen organisation, but also benefits their own career. According to a survey by Reed Executive and TimeBank, a charity that promotes community volunteering, 73 per cent of bosses said candidates with voluntary experience were at an advantage, while 94 per cent said volunteering would add to the skills of their workforce.

This year's status as 'Year of the Volunteer' has given charitable organisations such as TimeBank a platform from which to explain the benefits of donating time and expertise.

'Volunteering doesn't have to be purely altruistic. As well as making a difference to your community, volunteering can help you gain skills and improve your career prospects,' argues TimeBank chief executive Moira Swinbank. She suggests that trusteeship, in particular, would be of benefit to career-minded PROs. TimeBank's research shows that half of the 190,000 charities in the UK have problems recruiting trustees, only 15 per cent of whom are under 40 years old.

'Charities are crying out for expertise, and having more PR professionals would make a significant impact on their effectiveness,' Swinbank adds. 'PROs can help charities develop communications strategies to raise more money or awareness of their cause.'

Several agency directors are cottoning on to the benefits that their workforce – and clients – can reap from volunteering, with several offering employees paid leave for them to pursue charitable work.

Each Wednesday afternoon, four Mantra PR employees clock off to help children at a local school learn to read. Elsewhere, Shine Communications is in the process of setting up 'Sharing the Shine', which will enable staff to take two days' leave a year to volunteer. 

And volunteering can lend competitive advantage to those companies working to a particular social agenda. Geronimo Communications specialises in public sector PR and corporate social responsibility – it gives staff one day off a year to volunteer, and
actively encourages them to get involved in charitable work. Account executive  Sharon Bange, who is also a Childline counsellor, says her experience has proved a 'great help' in her PR career. 'Working with young people has given me a good understanding of the issues they face, which was invaluable when working on the Government's Aim Higher account,' she says.

Paul Smyth, founder of River PR, joined a Royal Air Force volunteer
reserves' unit in 2001 (7644 VR Media Operations Squadron) and encourages his staff to take volunteering seriously. He provides the RAF, Army, Navy and NATO – as well as coalition partners  – with PR expertise (the armed forces do not employ in-house PR specialists). In the four years that Smyth has been part of the unit, he has worked in Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Lithuania and Finland, as well as all over the UK.

From war to shop floor
Through his volunteering, which recently included a stint in Iraq, Smyth says he has developed many skills vital to his day job – such as taking photographs the media will want to print,  as well as editing, enhancing and resizing photos for different magazines and newspapers under extreme pressure.

'As far as career development goes, I've had thousands of pounds worth of training through volunteering that I would never have had elsewhere, and that has made a huge difference to my life and work,' he says. 'I have found myself in situations that I would never have been able to experience in a typical PR career.'

The experience has even boosted Smyth's confidence, allowing him to take the plunge 18 months ago to launch River. 'If you can handle the situations I found myself in during the war in Iraq, you can pretty much cope with anything that gets thrown at you back here,' he says.

Social change consultancy The Forster Company gives all staff a half-day break every month for voluntary work. Its practitioners are involved in a multitude of activities, such as working for hospital radio stations, mental health organisations and youth offender teams. Some are also trustees of not-for-profit organisations such as Sight Savers and Children on the Edge.

Allowing staff to volunteer during work hours sends out a clear signal to potential clients that an agency is genuinely committed to CSR. It also helps recruit and retain like-minded PROs.

'It is essential that staff feel inspired and in touch with the issues we work on,' says Forster project manager Christina Bell. 'One of the best ways of ensuring both is for people to see and experience the issues themselves through volunteering. It might take a few chargeable hours out of the timesheets each month, but it pays dividends in terms of bringing new ideas and insights
to brainstorming meetings and the strategy development process.'

For more information on becoming a trustee, go to www.getonboard.org.uk

'Volunteering helped me understand creativity'

Clare Plaisted, head of communications, Red Bee Media (formerly BBC Broadcast)
Clare Plaisted has been chairman of the Guy Fox History Project (www.guyfox.org.uk) for five years. The south London charity aims to boost primary-school children's interest in local history via cartoon character Guy Fox. The project was set up by Kourtney Harper, who Plaisted met on a plane to Atlanta.

Her experience of working for the charity worked to her advantage when she applied for a marketing and comms role at BBC Broadcast in 2003.

'The BBC was very interested to hear about my experience as a member of a board of trustees with responsibility for the financial running of a charity. That would be of interest to any employer,' Plaisted says.

'Working with Guy Fox has meant I have worked with a lot of creative people and designers. This has helped me understand the creative process and how design works, which is very useful in my current role,' she adds.

'I've learned how to campaign'
Suzanne Linsey, press officer for education, children's services and leisure, Enfield Council

Suzanne Linsey signed up to volunteer at Cats Protection in May following the death of her own cat. 'It made me think about those cats less fortunate than my pets, who weren't
cared for, who did not have enough to eat and who, without my help, could die. That's why I volunteered,' she explains.

Linsey chose Cats Protection because she was familiar with the charity's work and had always been impressed by its communications and literature. She spends up to eight hours a week there, in her leisure time, carrying out tasks such as revamping the official website and writing press releases. 'I get involved in all kinds of things, such as helping to plan campaigns and advising on the layout of posters and newsletters. The list is endless,' she says.

Linsey has found her experiences help in her role as press officer at Enfield Council.

'When you look at how charities compete for donations and supporters, it is vital you get your message across clearly and loudly,' she says. 'Sometimes it isn't easy – it is a challenge to keep ideas compelling and fresh when dealing with the same subject matter. Without a doubt, becoming a volunteer has helped me immensely as a PRO.'

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