A plea for the Australian Christian Lobby to get “on message”

Nathan Campbell —  June 6, 2011

In my time as a PR hack for a regional lobby group one of the golden rules I learned for lobbying via the media (or for trying to change opinion via the media) is to stay on message. Over and over again. Make sure you get your point across. Make sure the questions you get asked become opportunities to give the answers you want to give. Done well, this is brilliant. A good message (or platform) is important.

We all hate the way modern politicians seem to simply repackage the same sound bite over and over again in broadcast interviews. When they do it, and get caught out, they look dumb. But most of the time they don’t get caught out. Because journalists, in reality, are after an eight second sound bite. And you’re much better off making sure that eight seconds is going to cover the message you want them to cover, not the message they want to cover. Being mindlessly on message is better than talking about things without being on message.

The best way to be on message is to know how your message, or more correctly, your platform, relates to the issue at hand. For a politician that doesn’t mean banging on about “creating jobs” or “stopping boats” it means giving reasons that the policy decision has been reached in a way that is attractive to a voter. A good way to do this is to involve real people. People like stories about people. But integrating one’s party platform with one’s media statement in a way that is catchy and repeatable is one step towards using the media effectively.

It can be hard being on message in the middle of a broadcast interview, and especially hard if it’s in the form of a debate, which has been the case in many of Wendy Francis’ recent TV appearances. But it is incredibly easy to be on message in a media release, and if a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message. Let me repeat that in bold.

If a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t  be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message.

Unless you have some sort of key performance indicator that involves distributing a certain number of releases per month, or some sort of contractual obligation,  you should only put out releases that have a point. If you do have such KPIs or obligations you should seriously consider changing them. Nothing is more damaging than a brand than irrelevant and confusing messaging. Because when you have something valuable to say you’re either less credible, or a story will make reference to your previous position on an unrelated issue, or people just won’t listen to you because you’ve become the proverbial boy crying wolf.

Which brings me to the Australian Christian Lobby. And my big problem with how they do PR and how they’re almost never “on message”. Well, they’re not on “gospel” message anyway. A simple yardstick for being on message for a Christian Lobby would be talking about Jesus, wouldn’t it? Given that Jesus puts the Christ in Christian and is the leader of our political party, and that all our interactions with culture should be framed by the relationship we have with him by grace, and his Lordship over the world… I’d say Jesus is pretty foundational to Christian belief, and thus, Christian lobbying.

But not according to the Australian Christian Lobby. Now. A lot of the releases they put out in the Month of May are about good stuff. Serious issues. Issues where a Christian voice is valuable and necessary. And they get copious media coverage. They are nominally the spokespeople for the Christian cause in Australia. They keep getting wheeled out in front of cameras and recorders and notepads. And they keep straying off message. It’s foundational stuff.

Here’s a wordle of their media releases from May. I’ve removed the names of spokespeople quoted because they were a dominant feature.*

Now. You may think it’s unfair to take a sample of media releases about issues where they are on message about a response to an issue which may over cloud mentions of Jesus, word cloud wise. Which would be fair enough. But none of these releases actually mentioned Jesus. There is no flavouring of the gospel involved. Defenders of the ACL in recent days have mentioned that we’re called to be salt and light. Fair enough. But this isn’t even salty stuff. And, lest you think that just picking the word “Jesus” isn’t fair, I conducted the same exercise with the words gospel, God, and Bible. And got no results. Search results on their website reveal that most mentions of Jesus come in mentions of the Jesus: All About Life campaign, which they support.

A media messaging strategy for a Christian organisation of any flavour, but particularly a public voice of Christianity claiming to speak for all of us (they’re not called the Politically conservative Christians from Australia Lobby are they…), should fundamentally involve the issue that Christians of all flavours agree on. The Lordship of Jesus. Further, they should be motivated to see other people acknowledge that Lordship. While addressing injustice is a fundamental Christian activity, doing it in a manner so removed from our motivation is an off message distraction. This is why I think Christians who are interested in moral issues should form some sort of family/morality lobby (maybe stop the charade that Family First is a political party and turn them into a lobby group) and the Christian Lobby should get on with being a Christian voice (a role they try to claim for themselves on their about us page without actually mentioning Jesus, or the gospel, again). They claim a Christian “worldview” and yet don’t articulate it. A Christian worldview must start at the foot of the cross and work outwards, not start with morality and work inwards. The cross makes morality make sense.

Here’s what I think a Christian media strategy should look like, from 1 Peter 3:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

At the moment the ACL is failing on most counts, but still copping the slander. Why not do the first bit well, at least then you’re being slandered for a reason. And you’re not distracting people from the work of the gospel.

Interestingly, one of the few pages on the ACL site that mentions Jesus (that’s not a daily summary of news from around the traps) is an article they’ve posted from Sydney Anglicans where Michael Jensen talks about Jesus and the gospel alongside gay marriage. He integrates his key message with a response to an issue.

Deviations from the message of Jesus are a distraction from the gospel. But the message of Jesus has relevance to all areas and issues of society. The ACL, at this stage, aren’t doing a great job of integrating these two concepts.

*Data Source: Australian Christian Lobby National Media Releases from the Month of May:

 

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

22 responses to A plea for the Australian Christian Lobby to get “on message”

  1. Have you actually sent this to them?
    Maybe they need to consider whether they are lobbying for Christian stuff,

  2. … or just for morals (sorry, last comment got mangled).

    • Nathan Campbell June 6, 2011 at 9:57 am

      Yes. I have sent it to them. I’ve emailed their PR manager with some of the points and a link to this post.

      • Just had a scan Nathan and really keen to discuss this after I’ve had a chance to process properly. Will get back to you shortly.

        Blessings, Nick

        ACT Director – Australian Christian Lobby

        • Nathan Campbell June 6, 2011 at 10:36 am

          Hi Nick.

          Thanks. I look forward to it reading your response – feel free to email me if you’d prefer, I sent this to Katherine (pr@acl) as well and I’m happy to discuss further. My email address is nm(dot)campbell(at)gmail(dot)com. Just replace the (dot) with . and the (at) with @…

      • It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it. At the heart of the problem is whether they perceive themselves as a political or religious force (I know that’s not a particularly neat categorisation). I suspect, deep down, their interests are in the overlap between morality and politics, rather than religion and culture.

    • Hey, Nathan ~
      I’ll see if I can interest any of our Public Question types to come and interact with this post.
      Sorry for the very long ping-back below.

  3. I once emailed the ACL around election time to see why they had no views at all on Indigenous issues, in particular the NT Intervention, and very limited views on refugees, war and similar, non-’family’ issues. no response received. but i think it is an interesting dilemma.

  4. Nathan,
    I think you make a good point and one that the ACL could certainly learn from. I’ll be interested to see if your post generates public discussion with them.

    However I think there are a few complicating factors to think about.
    1) The Jesus talk issue highlights exactly the bind for anyone trying to do this kind of role. In Australian public life policy is based on the assumptions of autonomy and personal rights and is decided on utilitarian grounds (and the raw politics of which sector holds the votes). The explicit theological angle is not heard as serious engagement in public debate. Of course you can go for it still, and it may have a pre-evangelistic vaule. But it is hard to get a hearing from the people who actually make decisions if you don’t speak in their terms. I find this a real bind – we need to speak from and about a view that comes from the gospel, and yet for the sake of our neighbours we want to influence decisions. It sometimes feels as if there is a choice between the two.

    2) I’ve just been part of a group, which had some connection with ACL, working on a statement on same sex marriage. In the group there were strong views from Catholics and Protestants that natural law arguments should be central. I’m not so convinced. However you can’t deny that a natural law approach has a long standing role in Christian ethics. So not talking about Jesus (or explicitly Christian theology) is not, for all Christians, giving up on a Christian approach.

    3) In terms of the flow of press releases, if ACL is going to get the ear of the media on the issues that it really wants to speak on, then I think it needs to be ready to speak on almost anything. (That is not an argument for speaking badly).

    • Nathan Campbell June 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your reply. It is in area three that I have the most expertise (and which is the predominant focus of my piece) so I’ll address that first.

      Speaking on almost anything is great. And necessary. Being committed to the Lordship of Christ (or perhaps a “Christian Worldview”) means we will have an opinion informed by that framework on all issues of significance. Even if our opinion is that a particular area is an area of freedom, that’s a position we arrive at thanks to God’s grace, freedom from the law, and a view of Scripture. I’m not saying “only talk about issues where the gospel is clearly related” – not at all. But what I am saying is that it’s not enough to talk about the conclusions of a worldview (especially from a proclamation of the gospel point of view) in a media release when that view is not the dominant paradigm. I think you have to explain the framework that leads to a position. This is difficult, but not beyond the realms of possibility for a good PR person. And then you need to demonstrate why your conclusion is the best conclusion for people who don’t share your world view (this is what lobbying is, fundamentally). Being ready to speak on almost anything means being able to relate any issue to your core party platform, and it’s dangerous for consistent Christian witness around the country if such a platform is anything other than the work and person of Jesus. So on this point I’d say it’s possible to do both – speak on all issues, and talk about Jesus.

      Re point 2, working backwards, I keep coming back to Wilberforce and the RSPCA. If you can’t clearly articulate your position from a Christian point, or speaking from a Christian point, then stick to the strong natural law arguments that should exist for a position (though this needs to factor in the noetic effect of sin). I had a crack at a couple of economic/natural law arguments regarding gay marriage here in my archives somewhere. It wasn’t very good, nor particularly convincing, but I agree that natural law arguments are vital. But you don’t even need to read the media reaction to natural law arguments against non G-rated billboards to know that it can be easy for natural law moral arguments to be interpreted as Christian moralism, or legalism, which clouds the gospel. So we have a responsibility when speaking on these issues to make sure we are at least trying to talk about grace and the human condition. I don’t necessarily think you have to choose between a Biblical argument and a natural law argument against particular issues. Which goes back to my response to point three – a nuanced media release and policy position will be more than reactionary moralism. It will be a timely response to an issue from an appropriate framework that makes a case for both framework and conclusion. There’s also a danger (and I sit on the right politically) for making conservative politics the yardstick for Christianity, when the issue isn’t so clear cut. I have plenty of left-wing Christian friends who do not feel like they can relate to the ACL’s agenda, and yet they claim (nominally) to speak on behalf of Australian Christians.

      Re point 1, I agree. This is particularly hard. And the nature of our system is as it is. So I’d say I agree that theological arguments are easily dismissed (so I agree with those who want natural law arguments included in the mix), but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t make them. Because part of our job as Christians is to be faithful witnesses to the theological truths we hold. And we have every right to articulate those positions in a democracy. Even if we don’t change a law we might present the gospel in a compelling way to somebody. We need to figure out what our priority in terms of “wins” is, is it to have a morally upright society (loving our neighbours in that way) or to present the gospel to non-believers (loving our neighbours in that way). This isn’t a case of creating a needless dichotomy. I don’t think. Because I think both are essentially related. I think, at the moment, it is clear that the ACL is focused on the former at the expense of the latter. And we need to restore some sort of balance.

      In all of this I’m trying to balance my understanding of how political decisions are made on the basis of my experience working for a regional lobby group in PR and my developing grasp on various doctrines of revelation, anthropology, the interaction between church and state, etc… so this is a work in progress. But combining those two spheres of knowledge and experience I maintain that it would be possible to speak convincingly on an issue without failing to mention Jesus. I know it can be done well, because I have seen people like Peter Jensen speak on political issues while presenting the gospel.

    • Hi John

      Re: your point 2 - I appreciate your point that for those advocating a strong natural law approach (such as myself, as you know), not speaking “Christianly” can indeed be the Christian approach. I guess it also raises the broader question of whether there really is a Christian approach to things other than the Christian faith. Of course, Christians should have a distinct motivation behind all things they do, but there is a commonality with unbelievers in the way they do things.

      • Chris,
        I wasn’t really thinking of the 2K version (though I guess it is relevant). The group I was working with had a “leading Catholic ethicist” – it was fascinating to see his confidence in and dexterity with Natural Law arguments. I am still inclined to think that arguments from creation order need a theological and Christological grounding. The pluralist setting makes that even more obvious.

        John

  5. Terrific post, Nathan. But surely the only thing a “Christian lobby” group can lobby for is morals.

    I mean, you can’t really lobby for Jesus – that would be evangelism, and evangelism is not about politics or coercion. That is not to defend ACL, but to suggest that what it is really involved in is the great commandments, rather than the great commission.

    • Nathan Campbell June 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Chris,

      I’d say lobbying for the freedom to preach is important for Christians, and not about morals per say, and as a general principle it’s not only applicable to those who identify as Christians.

      I’d say lobbying for the sanctity of life, while a moral stand, is also philosophical. I guess my answer to your opening statement is to question how broadly you define morals? If it’s limited to the great commandments then I think we can cast the net a bit wider than that. We can lobby for the gospel to be taken seriously as part of the framework of our society. We can argue about the tax concessions for churches. We can do all sorts of lobbying on “Christian” issues that doesn’t look like lobbying for morals.

      We can also take a moral stance based on our worldview on issues like abortion, marriage, euthanasia – and all of these might be moral issues but we don’t need to argue in categories of morally right and wrong necessarily. That sentence makes sense to me, but I’m not quite sure I’m articulating what I mean. While I believe that abortion is morally wrong, I think arguing against it looks like arguing that life is to be cherished, nurtured, and valued by our government and our laws. While I believe that homosexuality is morally wrong I might argue that it is ok for consenting adults to chose morally wrong outcomes so long as I can continue to believe that what they do is morally wrong – at that point I’m not arguing to impose my morality on others, but arguing that the government should not impose its own view of morality on me.

      I’m not actually saying that lobbying for morals is wrong – just that it needs to be presented in a framework of grace or it makes it look like the Christian message is legalism. Or it needs to not be presented as a Christian message. Perhaps an analogy could be drawn between the way U2 approaches music and the way the Newsboys approach music.

      • I’m not actually saying that lobbying for morals is wrong…

        Agreed. But I think when the Christian is lobbying secular bodies (e.g. the civil government), a natural law approach is the correct one. A Biblical argument falls on the deaf ears of those who are not regenerate. I’m also confused as to what kind of “lobbying for morals” you are actually advocating…

        While I believe that homosexuality is morally wrong I might argue that it is ok for consenting adults to chose morally wrong outcomes so long as I can continue to believe that what they do is morally wrong – at that point I’m not arguing to impose my morality on others, but arguing that the government should not impose its own view of morality on me.

        For whom and for what would you be lobbying here?

        • Nathan Campbell June 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

          Hi Chris,

          Something funny is going on with blockquotes in comments. I’ll fix that at some point and your above comment will make more sense.

          I think we establish a false and unwieldily dichotomy if we suggest that because secular entities won’t understand Biblical arguments we shouldn’t make Biblical arguments. Why can’t we do both knowing that part of our argument won’t work for part of our audience? I think it’s a bit reductionistic (especially in a democracy) to assume that the audience of lobbying is the government. The audience for lobbying is the populace. Especially since the Government is so poll-driven. Sure. Some of the populace won’t buy (and will oppose) Biblical arguments, but some might, and our preaching of the gospel might be what moves them to faith.

          I think you can also make an argument that a Biblical argument has a place in our government decision making from a historical standpoint, and thus it is not irrelevant for natural law arguments. Especially if one espouses a conservative view of politics believing that not all changes in social values are for the best.

          So I think by pushing a natural law argument alone you’ve robbed the Christian position of its persuasive power in some ways and you’re better off pursuing a position from a natural law position alone – so joining a political party or secular lobby group. Because what makes the Christian viewpoint unique is the redemptive work and Lordship of Jesus.

          So, on the homosexual point – which was really just an example, I’m not lobbying either way… I’d say that the bigger picture in this debate, for the Christian, is not one of morality but of liberty. I’ve argued this before on this site, I think in all likelihood we’ll eventually lose the gay marriage debate, and I don’t even think it’s a debate worth having in a secular society – I think we should lobby on behalf of Christians (and muslims, and homophobes) for provisions in the law to allow for groups to continue not to recognise gay marriage even when the state does. So I wouldn’t be arguing for a specific morality, but for the philosophy of liberty to choose one’s own morals. And I think that will be especially important for the church in the next few decades as Australia moves further into the post-Christian milieu. I don’t think the ACL recognises that as Australia’s future and they seem either to be overly optimistic or fighting a stoic rearguard action trying to hold onto our Christian heritage where I’d be suggesting we need to carve out a place for our Christian traditions within this new scene.

  6. Hey Nathan

    First, a thought. Theological content in politics and civil discourse doesn’t always need to come in the form of argument. More often, I expect it to be simply at the level of explanation or description—to say, in effect, “We take this stance as Christians, and here’s why.” (With “gentleness and respect”, like you said, which means being winsome, irenic, tactful, apt.)

    Second, a question. I agree that ACL must have a deeply Christian rationale for its operations, but does this mean that every single ACL message needs to spell this out? If so, we might be starting to conflate church and parachurch.

    (Of course, your point seems to be that there’s not much rationale showing through in the first place.)

    While as Christians we mustn’t disconnect word and action, Christian parachurch groups are free to major on particular things.

    For example, Compassion Australia has a deeply Christian rationale—and their strapline is “In Jesus’ name”—but their actual message is child advocacy. Rightly so. No need for quasi-evangelism there.

    It’s the same for ACL which, as a political lobby group, is simply attempting to provide a political voice for its Christian constituency. And addressing injustice is exactly what a political lobby group should be majoring on, whether or not it is accompanied by opportunities for proclamation.

    So, for me, the question is not firstly about how “Jesusy” ACL’s message is. I’m more interested in whether ACL is representing its constituency, and how far “Christian values” actually goes—whether ACL is indeed addressing injustice in a thoroughly Christian way. (Did you see my 2010 post?)

    Speaking of which, see this Facebook discussion—I’d love your input on an open letter.

    One more thing. The lobby group GetUp! makes for an interesting comparison here. GetUp! isn’t from “the dominant paradigm” either, but they’re lobbying squarely on the basis of issues. Sure, they sometimes use the word “progressive”, but they keep the issues front and centre without selling a worldview, and that’s why as a Christian I can relate to their efforts and even take part in a number of their campaigns.

    • Nathan Campbell June 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      Hi Arthur,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Firstly – I agree. Argument isn’t necessary. That’s partly my point. I think sometimes just articulating a position on an approach without making it adversarial (without even mentioning opposing views or groups) is a better PR strategy. If you mention your opponents you give them oxygen. The media talks to them too. And the story becomes bigger than is helpful. Imagine the billboard issue if Wendy Francis hadn’t mentioned the homosexuality of the couple involved at all and had simply filed a complaint on the basis of a condom ad being presented in a public place.

      Second. No. Not every single release. Though every single release should be “on message”, having a foundational message that you want to communicate, a statement of purpose, is a great way for deciding what to speak out on. Then you’ve just got to ask “does this contribute positively to my purpose” and “will this contribute negatively to my purpose or reputation” before releasing anything. I don’t think every release should mention Jesus. But none of their releases do. I’ve just made a wordle of the CPX media releases. I’ll post it tonight. It’s very different.

      I’m not hugely enamoured with parachurch organisations as a general rule. I think they need to make sure they’re not getting in the way of the universal church they serve. A parachurch’s “major” should complement, not overshadow, the church’s major. That’s what I think is going on here with the way the ACL’s message creates a perception that Christians are on about morality. If representatives of the church were better at participating in the media this wouldn’t be an issue. But the ACL is one of our only consistently represented voices. So they bear a greater responsibility. Especially if they are seeking coverage through media engagement.

      Compassion is a good example of what hereafter I will call the “Wilberforce Principle” – it’s not called Christian Child Sponsorship Australia. There’s a disjunctive link between their Christianity and their advocacy that avoids clouding the brand message. I’m not suggesting quasi-evangelism. I’m suggesting that the Christian worldview should be the Jesus worldview. Or the gospel worldview. Not the morality informed by Christianity worldview.

      How Jesusy the ACL is isn’t my only concern with the ACL, I have significant issues with some of the positions they’ve adopted on areas relating to freedom of speech and censorship. How Jesusy they aren’t is one of the problems I think they create for the church as it evangelises, because I think they create confusion around the Christian brand. And it’s simply the issue at the heart of this post. They need to be Jesusy in order to aid the church not in order to lobby well. But I think they also need to be Jesusy because I think that’s what a Biblical picture of cultural engagement looks like.

      I think we’re in broad agreement, politically speaking, and Christian values speaking, on the basis of our pre-election coverage. So I’ll have a look at the Facebook discussion in my next study break.

      I’m not sure how possible it is to pick issues to feature without implicitly selling a world view, which is why I think it’s more intellectually honest, and useful from a branding perspective, to explicitly refer to your worldview in every release or statement. And surely being given a chance to address the nation (well, Sunrise audience) is a golden opportunity to consider how you might point people to the good news of Jesus while addressing an issue.

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