Sometimes it seems like it’s one PR problem after another, and plenty have fuelled bloggernacle discussions over the last year or so. In this post I’ll be looking at PR as discussed in this BBC R4 Beyond Belief programme, and a recent podcast in which Gina Colvin interviews members Roy and Emma Hann about their experiences with church PR.

In Beyond Belief, presenter Ernie Rae was joined by “the Rev George Pitcher, former Religious Editor of the Daily Telegraph and editor in chief of the International Business Times UK; Dr Yasmin Ibrahim, reader in International Business and Communications at Queen Mary University; and Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, one of the founding fathers of Catholic Voices, set up to provide a positive Catholic response to issues in the public arena.” There was an inset interview with the Rev Dr Rob Marshall, former leader of PR for St Paul’s cathedral. The programme opened with the following:

ER: Every organisation needs good communicators, and religious bodies are no exception. They were once very good at it. Messages that had their origins in fairly obscure corners of the globe changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. So what’s gone wrong?

All were agreed that the social climate today is very different, and that we can’t do without PR. So from the early days of Christianity and Islam, through the development of the printing press, to the modern day:

JV: 60 years ago there were no companies with press officers. And similarly the churches. I mean the Catholic church set up a press office during the second Vatican Council. And that was a new thing. Actually saying to people, we’re here, we’re having a meeting, we think this meeting is of interest to you, and we’re going to tell you what’s happening. And his was completely new. Now you wouldn’t dream of having a company that doesn’t have a press office that answers to the requests for information.
GP: And very often that’s a status symbol isn’t it Jack?
JV: Yes.
GP: It’s a you’re someone if you’ve got representation. You’re someone if you’ve got a PR machine out there.
ER: But I guess Yasmin that’s the result of increasing globalisation. If you start with a very simple community like the sort of communities who Jesus and Mohammed were preaching to, you don’t really need spin doctors. You don’t need PR people.
YI: Well, we still have this notion of word of mouth. And this orality that used to be there is still there, and this orality is a problem sometimes. Through word of mouth you can get a wrong message across, and today no organisation can afford to be without some sort of communication strategy, whatever you call it, you call it spin, you call it an outreach programme, you call it a campaign, but it’s impossible today not to have one.
ER: I guess the big change came with the printing press. All of a sudden you had a means of mass communication. And the bigger the audience the more the opportunity for misunderstanding. The more the need for somebody who will put that right. George.
GP: The way in which the reformation unfolded was all about the vernacular and accessibility to the gospel, no longer was it the preserve of priests and the establishment only. It was the peoples. And then of course, when you put it into the hands of the people, the people start making their own decisions as to what it means and what they do. And that then upsets the establishment which means that that’s increasingly why they started to put people in place to say No, no no. You might think it means that, but actually we who know better than you suggest that it means this. And that of course, is at the heart of spin and PR wherever you encounter it. You have to see it our way.
ER: But, but you see we have changed. We’ are now living in a digital age where messages can go worldwide within seconds. And in that sort of age complicated messages, which people are able to understand has gone, and people are now dealing in soundbites Yasmin, which changes the name of the game completely.
YI: With the soundbite society we are looking at a world of selfies as well, where the visual digital cultures are coming back into play. We want to see everything in images. We want to have a shorthand for the world actually. …

I found George Pitcher’s comments about the reformation very interesting, and the consequences (highlighted), to be particularly interesting with respect to us today. On the one hand members are encouraged to use social media to spread the message, whilst on the other the results of this can sometimes be seen by the church to conflict with the message they would like to be spread. And this isn’t just a case of pamphlets being delivered locally, or prints of a vernacular translation of scripture being smuggled in to a country. As Ernie Rae stated, today messages are global, and can be available within seconds. Whilst I wouldn’t agree that there is no room for longer complicated messages, I’d agree there seems to be a need for the short soundbite, heavy on visuals messages as well.

Reactive PR

This would be the kind of PR responding to news stories, and events occurring outside the control of the institution. The programme looked at some PR disasters sustained by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the past.

For the Church of England this was the occasion when the Occupy Movement was at it’s height, and the Occupy London folk were camped out in front of St Paul’s cathedral back in 2011-2012. There was a lot of bad press, and internal disagreement as to how things should be handled at the time, resulting in resignations by cathedral clergy including the Dean. Some highlights from Rev Marshall’s comments about the situation:

RM: … I think even now we’re reflecting on it and trying to work out exactly what happened.

RM: … I think it was unprecedented in so many different ways. But it did articulate, and highlight, and focus some of the ongoing PR issues that the church finds very difficult to handle. Who is in charge? Who’s voice is going to be heard? Can the church possibly have one position when you’ve got Giles on the one side, and the Dean and the Chapter on the other? And the Bishop of London on the other? What represents the true authentic voice in that difficult situation? And of course all the work that’s currently going on, on digital media and a network society. How do you possibly compete, the gospel compete with an emerging movement like Occupy was? I think there were so many lessons to be learned. It was very easy to throw stones. There were lots of PR gurus and experts throwing stones at me and the cathedral in-house team and the Dean and even Giles. But actually at the end of the day it was a very very complex situation. I think the one thing that I’d just like to point out was that winning piece of sheet blowing in the wind outside. “Where would Jesus be?” Would he be in the cathedral, or would he be out here in the camp? I think that summarised the difficulty in actually competing with that message. Because I think most of us in the cathedral knew where Jesus probably would have been.

For the Roman Catholic church the programme looked at responses to the publication and subsequent filming of the Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code, and the child abuse scandal.

ER: … And the Catholic church took a very heavy-handed stance over that, they said they wanted a disclaimer put in the film saying that this was entirely fictional. There were one or two calls for legal action. I think it was the Archbishop of Nigeria, Cardinal Arinze said Christians must not sit back and say it’s enough for us to forgive and forget.
JV: Yes.
ER: A PR disaster.
JV: I think this turned out to be the wrong moves…

ER: … the whole child abuse scandal which has been such a taint on the Catholic church over the last.. other churches as well, over the last 12 years. The Catholic church seemed not to realise at the time that they needed to respond to that in a really positive open manner.
JV: It took too long. And it wasn’t done properly at first. And not having seen it with any other organisation before they were very confused. …

Still, the Catholic church seems to processed what happened, judging by other remarks, and to have learnt from the experience. On The Da Vinci Code:

JV: … I think Opus Dei saw that for us this became a great opportunity. We had a guy running the communications who was a genius and he said no you must not oppose it, there is a media spotlight on you. And in terms of communication for Opus Dei this was the turning moment for us. And we became from being completely unknown to being a household name. The bad stuff was already there. Now we could actually explain that what we are is a Catholic group trying to help people to be holy in their daily lives.

And in discussion on the abuse scandal:

GP: I mean, I think the problem the Roman Catholic church had was that not only that it didn’t respond well, but it didn’t know that it had to respond, that it needed to respond. Or indeed that there was any exterior authority to which it was accountable. And you know, the days have now gone when we, in either of our churches, can give the impression that we’ve conducted an internal inquiry and we’re satisfied that it won’t happen again. Now, off you go, and mind your own business. Because we don’t live in a world that is deferential to that sort of authority any more. And to return to what we were talking about earlier, the social media movement is part of that. You know, you can’t simply respond with a statement and expect this atomised, democratised, everybody’s a journalist society to be satisfied with that. You’ll get filleted. You’ll get murdered in that environment.

JV: … I think it was just incompetence in not answering, in not knowing that it had to be answered. But I think that what’s come out of it is the realisation that the media hold the people in institutions to account, including the church, and that is a really healthy position to be in. And I think people are now happy, whereas at the beginning they might think well why are the media after us. I think that’s really important that the media brought this out.

The programme also discussed PR in the Muslim community, identifying an initial problem:

YI: … there isn’t a hierarchy, and it’s one of the issues that the Muslim community has got to sort of struggle with because of the fact that there are so many denominations, so many ethnicities, a diasporic communities, fractures within them. And they do need something to bring it together. But I don’t know whether it’s in a hierarchical, institutionalised structure that would address all their needs. I think they need to work as stakeholders with other organisations and indeed the government.

And later discussed what has essentially been fire-fighting in the Muslim community ever since 9/11. In this country one such organisation to respond, though not exclusively, to events is the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

YI: … 9/11, 7/7, a whole series of events, this globalisation, sometimes unconnected events, become connected and congealed into one big monolithic block for the Muslims and everything affects them. And it’s been one thing after another, and they’re in a chronic stage. It’s been sustained, it’s been going on for years now. And any organisation, whether it be MCB or any faith based Muslim organisation has got it’s-
ER: The Muslim Council of Britain.
YI: Yes, they’ve got their work cut out for them because it’s not one thing they can do. They’ve got to do a whole host of strategies, and they’ve got to do it for a sustained period of time, because they’re demonised, they’re misrepresented, and a lot of the polls and research shows that there’s been lots more coverage on religion. Indeed 60% of the stories are on Islam. But the problem is the quality of representation has been poor. This is one of the issues that was brought up in the Levenson Inquiry, where they were talking about religious illiteracy among people who produce news.
ER: Yasmin, it does seem that at times the Muslim Council of Britain issues a statement in reaction to every event. And I wonder is that always wise?
YI: It can sort of bind MCB, Muslim Council of Britain, into the sort of duality with the conflicts all the time and what they have to do is pull back a little bit and look at more proactive communication strategies that build awareness about Islam and builds up the religious literacy in different audiences, whether they are a community of believers or not.

It would seem reactive PR by an institution needs to consider the following:

  • Have a unified message.
  • Respond openly and honestly.
  • Take advantage of the media spotlight to get your message across without being defensive.
  • It isn’t necessary to react to every little thing.

Proactive PR

This would be what should be your day to day work in presenting the message of the organisation. As Jack Valero said at the start of the programme:

JV: … the Catholic church or Christianity is about giving a message. That’s what this religion is about. You know, Christ said go and preach to all nations. And before it was with speeches, then it was with radio programmes. Now it’s with a very complex media.

However, both he and Dr Ibrahim recognised that proactive PR can also have a role in reactive PR.

JV: … And I think we have to react to how life develops and the way people are interested in subjects now is through controversies and that’s something that we must learn. We must learn that controversy is going to spike people’s interest and we must be able to answer them and give our message at the same time.

YI: … And when conflicts happen, when scandals happen, when PR disasters happen, this is a time to be able to have deliberative conversations to reach out to other people as well.

Jack Valero’s involvement with Catholic Voices is discussed:

ER: And what you’re trying to do in Catholic Voices Jack, is actually give people the skills that they need to be able to articulate a positive message, so that you are doing something positive rather than simply reacting.
JV: Exactly. And it’s not just the positive. It’s to get behind the issues, and understand the truth behind them, to understand the frames in which news is couched, and to respond to them properly. You know, so not just.. it’s not a spin operation. It’s to get to the truth of the matter. In each news story, what’s really happening here, what people are thinking, and what’s behind it, and to empower people, ordinary people, all catholics to be able to do that.
ER: And yet I have heard criticism coming from catholic sources that’s saying that what you do is actually to sanitise your message, to water it down, to make it appeal to a mainstream audience.
JV: I think this would be very difficult to do with a very large group of people as we’re doing. You know, because people have their own ways of speaking, their own ideas. It’s really difficult to say we’re going to water it down for them.

Interesting point on controversies being the thing to spark interest. And, at least we aren’t the only ones to face the accusation of sanitising the message.

Over on this post earlier this week, on the LDS church, commenter Martin wrote:

“I think the church’s proactive PR is pretty good. The reactive PR is, well, really struggling. I keep think even I could do reactive better, but that’s probably delusional. Besides, maybe, just maybe, they’re doing a better job than I think for the people it would actually influence.”

I think we can all agree that reactive PR can be difficult. On the proactive front a lot of the short videos etc. coming from the centre can be very well done. They don’t often whip up a storm.

In my view, there’s a third form of PR though, probably overlapping with both reactive and proactive PR. For the purposes of this post I’m going to call it cooperative PR.

Cooperative PR

This isn’t something that gets any discussion in the Beyond Belief programme, but I would suggest that the programme itself is an example of cooperative PR. Representatives of religious groups come together with the presenter to have a balanced discussion on a variety of issues. I’ve often wished that as a church we’d receive greater representation on programmes such as these. It’s certainly a good way to present those more complex, not appropriate for soundbite, ideas. I am only aware of one Beyond Belief programme involving Mormons, and that dates back to 2008 (I believe) during the first Mitt Romney Presidential Campaign. I heard the programme. Professor Douglas Davies, one of the few academics in this country involved in Mormon studies was excellent. He answered questions openly, and without prevarication. The LDS spokesperson (who I won’t embarrass by naming) was terrible. He came across as wooden, suspicious and afraid to stray outside a preapproved script. It didn’t make for a relaxed conversation or listening. Our TV appearances often don’t fare any better. Blogger RJH has posts you can read here and here. The most recent embarrassment was the Channel 4 Meet the Mormons (not to be confused with the new church-produced film in the US). Given this background, I found the interview by Gina Colvin with Scottish Mormons Emma and Roy Hann, who themselves had dealings with church PR in conjunction with their family’s television appearances, to be particularly eye-opening. Really, recommended listening.

In brief, Emma and Roy Hann, were raised in the church by devout parents in Britain. They themselves have been raising a large family in the church. It was the size of their family that prompted the invitation for them to be part of the Channel 4 programmes 15 Kids and Counting, and 16 Kids and Counting, and for one of their daughters to feature in the CBBC (children’s) series My Life*. Because the church is such a huge part of their everyday life church PR needed to be involved, for filming to take place on church properties. The Hann’s were eager to present the church favourably as a part of their life, but it seems to have a been a battle with PR to do so.

The first thing to surprise me was that the local British PR on the ground, local rep callings aside, seem to be a missionary couple. That’s sympathy all round then, as I’m not sure they’d feel they had enough autonomy to make independent, immediate, on the ground decisions. The second thing to surprise me was that the media seemed to be treated by PR more as the enemy and less as a working partner. There seemed to be no realisation that the media people were themselves recipients of a message by the way in which they were treated by PR. This was a point of extreme embarrassment for the long-standing, faithful British members involved. Thirdly, I wasn’t aware that a four hour media training session was required for an individual before they could be interviewed on church grounds. Understandably, local members happy to cooperate with the media involved in the programmes, baulked at that requirement. There was distress at the lack of trust PR seemed to have for the members. The Hanns themselves had already declined media training, the programmes’ focus was them, not the church. Some snippets from the interview:

EH: … And I just felt, look you don’t trust any of us … nobody’s doing stuff like that, you have no trust in any of us.
GC: That’s the sense isn’t it that everyday members and those outside of the church are viewed with this mistrust.
EH: Yes, it was so difficult … At one point while they were filming somebody came up behind, Rachel and Charles were being interviewed after the wedding and it was kind of how did you think the day had gone and somebody came up behind them and took the picture of Jesus off the wall. I was just like you’re kidding me, you mean, why? You look so stupid doing this.
GC: So you’re noticing with some frustration that perhaps the PR department are trying to manage a very fluid and natural, well as natural as you can get process, … are the, is the TV crew and directors noticing this.
RH: Very much. They were. They were seeing it, in fact they would say to us, one of the things they said to us which was a very valid point was that you do realise that these people are the face of the church –
EH: to us.
RH: – to the media. This is who represents you. And the way they were behaving in my mind was not appropriate. They were trying to control every aspect of it. …

After some misunderstanding by PR and particularly poor treatment:

EH: … And I was mortified, because it had upset her. She’d felt like she’d blown it because it had been so difficult to work with all the time. Here we were having this filming in sacrament meeting the next day. She kind of felt that she’d threatened the whole programme. And I was just absolutely embarrassed. I told my brother. He wrote a letter to the stake president, copied in people like public affairs from the stake, all that. He said has the public affairs department had a common sense lobotomy? What in the world is wrong with people here? …
GC: It sounds like control for controls sake.
EH: And it felt threatening. It felt like we were trouble. It felt, it was so difficult.
GC: And of course, you guys are in the middle of this, you’re trying to do as much as you can to –
EH: – positively show the church in a good light.
GC: – and you want it to work for everybody, and it seems the organisation isn’t set up to accommodate that kind of positive message …

They also offered some interesting insight into the Channel 4 Meet the Mormons programme. Seems like we really need to do the whole cooperative PR thing a lot lot better.


NB. The PR discussion with the Hanns takes place during the last hour of the first interview.
*The CBBC programme “My Life My Big Family Wedding” can be viewed here, and gives a good idea of the typical British church wedding that takes place before a sealing.