10 timeless tips for excellent communication from Cicero

Back in ancient Rome there wasn’t “PR” or “Marketing” or “social media” but there was a “public square” and there was “communication” and there most certainly was “persuasion” and “propaganda” – and it largely depended on rhetoric, and oratory, and the type of oratory most highly prized was eloquence.

Cicero was a bit of an expert on eloquence, and oratory. Not only did he publish a bunch of material on how to speak, and be eloquent, other famous people like Julius Caesar, dedicated their own published works on oratory to him. This makes him an ancient expert, somewhat anachronistically, on public relations, and communication. All you have to do is replace “Oratory” with “communication” and “eloquence” with “being good at communicating”…

cicero statue

Image Credit: Cicero Statue, The First Premise, Cicero

As I read through Cicero’s handbooks and other stuff for a bit of research, and for fun, I’m struck over and over again by how timeless his principles and advice are. His single-minded pursuit of oratory excellence, and thus, excellence in communication led him to study communication, and persuasion, from its earliest days as a science – to his present day, an approach we can probably learn from, even if we want to pretend everything of value has been invented in the last couple of generations (and even if we don’t – it’s worth seeing how timeless truth is).

He acknowledges that this pursuit is pretty difficult, because while there are some objective qualities of good oratory, and an objective essence of good communication – that all communication can be judged on, the actual act of communication is almost purely subjective.

“How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own? But this difficulty has not deterred me from the undertaking; nor have I altered my opinion that in all things there is a something which comprehends the highest excellence of the kind, and which, though not generally discernible, is sufficiently conspicuous to him, who is skilled in the subject.”

Here are 10 things I think modern communicators can learn from Cicero, with some quotes (and if you hit the “read more” link after the list, there’s a bunch of quotes from his Cicero’s Brutus or History of Famous Orators, and The Orator).

It’s a pretty long post including the quotes – sorry if it all makes it into the RSS feed.

  1. Words are powerful. Especially when they’re well used.
    Words persuade people.

    This is the Eloquence that bends and sways the passions!—this the Eloquence that alarms or sooths them at her pleasure! This is the Eloquence that sometimes tears up all before it like a whirlwind; and, at other times, steals imperceptibly upon the senses, and probes to the bottom of the heart!

  2. Know what you’re trying to do when you communicate (move your audience to action or change their thinking).
    Good communication means thinking about who your audience is, and how you want to change them (or stop them changing).

    As, therefore, the two principal qualities required in an Orator, are to be neat and clear in stating the nature of his subject, and warm and forcible in moving the passions; and as he who fires and inflames his audience, will always effect more than he who can barely inform and amuse them” 
  3. Know your audience, and their expectations. Contextualise. Don’t bore people.
    Given these two points, the communicator should choose words that speak to their audience, so communication requires observation, education, thinking, and participating in life.

    “He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.”

  4. Be clear
    Use words and phrases people will understand, phrased as concisely as possible, but pay heed to convention and context, don’t be so clear you’re boring.

    …the simple and easy Speaker is remarkably dexterous and keen, and aiming at nothing but our information, makes every thing he discourses upon, rather clear and open than great and striking, and polishes it with the utmost neatness and accuracy.”

  5. Pay attention to the structure of your argument.
    Think about pace, rhythm, rhyme, and verve, but most importantly – how to structure your argument around your purpose.

    “For every cause can have but one natural introduction and conclusion; and all the other parts of it, like the members of an animal body, will best retain their proper strength and beauty, when they are regularly disposed and connected.”

  6. Be engaging.
    This means cleverly, or inventively, using new and exciting combinations of words designed to stir people, and using humour sometimes (carefully and originally).

    “This kind of Oratory will likewise be frequently enlivened by those turns of wit and pleasantry, which in Speaking have a much greater effect than is imagined. There are two sorts of them; the one consisting in smart sayings and quick repartees, and the other in what is called humour. Our Orator will make use of both;—of the latter in his narratives, to make them lively and entertaining;—and of the other, either in giving or retorting a stroke of ridicule.”

  7. Use familiar structures, concepts and tools, but change the words to paint new, clear, pictures.
    Sticking with what people know, and using it to change what they think, is a good strategy.

    “But in the use of metaphors, he will, perhaps, take greater liberties; because these are frequently introduced in conversation, not only by Gentlemen, but even by rustics, and peasants: for we often hear them say that the vine shoots out it’s buds, that the fields are thirsty, the corn lively, and the grain rich and flourishing. Such expressions, indeed, are rather bold: but the resemblance between the metaphor and the object is either remarkably obvious; or else, when the latter has no proper name to express it, the metaphor is so far from appearing to be laboured, that we seem to use it merely to explain our meaning.”

  8. Character, and personal substance, is important, bad character corrupts communication
    It’s not just the medium that is the message. You are the message too. Partly because in oratory you were the medium – in modern communication who you are is as important, if not more important, than what you say.

    “But (as I have before observed) I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.”

  9. Communicating well is hard, successful communication achieves its purpose.
    While there are plenty of communication principles, it should be judged on its fruits – how well does what you’re communicating achieve its purpose?

    “The general merit of an Orator must and will be decided by the effects which his eloquence produces. For (in my opinion at least) there are three things which an Orator should be able to effect; viz. to inform his hearers, to please them, and to move their passions.”

  10. Practice, imitation, reading, and writing makes better, and if at first you don’t succeed, keep pursuing excellence.
    Communicating well is hard work. But it’s better to try to communicate well, and fail, than to simply communicate poorly.

    “It is but reasonable, however, that all those who covet what is excellent, and which cannot be acquired without the greatest application, should exert their utmost. But if any one is deficient in capacity, and destitute of that admirable force of genius which Nature bestows upon her favourites, or has been denied the advantages of a liberal education, let him make the progress he is able. For while we are driving to overtake the foremost, it is no disgrace to be found among the second class, or even the third…” 

If you want to read further, I’ve included the list again, with more supporting quotes from Cicero, below…

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A guide to promoting community events

I’ve spent the day putting together a White Paper for a PR client detailing how you might go about publicising and marketing an event. It’s useful stuff. I’m pushing for it to be something they give away, partly because I’d have to completely rewrite it to not breach any copyright stuff if I wanted to give it away from here. But in the course of my research I came across this guide from the Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship for “Promoting Community Events Through the Media” – which does pretty much everything my paper does anyway, though in a slightly more basic way.

It’s a good starting point for churches thinking about getting some local media attention for their events.

There are a few other handy bits and pieces courtesy of Business Events Sydney. They have a nice little “toolkit”… which includes a guide to promoting events, and these two semi-useful pages:

Plundering “gold” from “public relations”

Tying up some loose ends around here before I return to serving up YouTube videos which is just about the limit of what my mental capacity can handle for the next few weeks, I just wanted to lay out some of my thinking about what the relationship between my last career (which I still do a bit of) in Public Relations, and my future vocation – gospel ministry.

I’m increasingly aware not just that there’s a gap in the market for thinking about how churches engage with the public via the media (a subset of PR), and not a huge number of resources out there for thinking about what Christianity looks like in the Media. CPX does a great job, the Sydney Anglicans, and especially Peter Jensen, have some resources, which we saw come into play on Q&A this week, and Communicate Jesus is a great first step for thinking about how to communicate timeless truths in a timely way.

I’m also aware that for many people “PR” is synonymous with “Spin” and deliberate deception, or providing inane sound bites so that you’ll get picked up in the news cycle. These are essentially antithetical to Christian ethics, and the message of the gospel. Though clarity and being succinct is important.

I also mentioned in my post about what college is teaching me that I’m increasingly reflecting on how proclaiming the gospel benefits from understanding culture. I want to flesh that out a little in this post – particularly as it relates to how I think about public relations and whatever skills I might have there.

So – in a nutshell – I think Paul, in his rejection of Corinthian sophistry (see B.W.W Winter, Paul and Philo amongst the Sophists) turned to Cicero, who in De Oratore had rejected flashy, substanceless, but impressive oratory that majored in pathos, for an approach to oratory that focused as much on ethos (the character of the speaker), and logos (the substance), as pathos (the ability to stir an emotional response). I think Paul was a highly trained, though non-professional rhetorician who became a Pharisee because he couldn’t professionally advance as a Jewish orator, and this explains the rhetorical power of his letters, and his impressive presentations to councils, kings, and court rooms in Acts.

I think his appearance in the marketplace, and then the Areopagus, in Athens is, by analogy, the first century equivalent of blogging, media engagement, speaking to parliament, and going on a TV talk show.

I think he benefited from recognising a truth in Cicero, also present in the work of the prophets etc – where value was placed on character and developed this to emphasise a Christ like suffering character (and I think that explains his words in 2 Cor 10-13 – you can read more in my essay here). I’d argue that in some sense he has “plundered the gold of the Egyptians.” Which is a concept that Augustine pushes pretty hard when he tells Christians to get a good “classical” education in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching – again, you can read more of my essay here).

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

Luther followed suit a little bit, he was particularly keen to communicate in forms that worked, and part of the nature of their “working” was their popularity. He even liked fonts. He sent a letter to one of his rich friends that said:

“have some boy collect all the German pictures, rimes,songs, books, lays of the Meistersinger, which have this year been painted, composed,made, and printed by your German poets, publishers, and printers. I have a reason forwanting them. We can make Latin books for ourselves, but we wish to learn how tomake German ones, as we have hitherto made none that please anybody.”

He didn’t just use pop culture, he also played the media relations game, or its equivalent.

Here are some stats about his use of the printing press during the reformation (read more in my essay here).

It is estimated in the first three years, 300,000 of Luther’s 30 popular pamphlets were circulating,and by the tenth year, two million copies of Luther’s 400 plus pamphlets were circulating, not just in Germany, but throughout Europe. The Reformation led to a sixfold increase in output from German printers.

These were published in the vernacular, and aimed at the public, not the elite.

The case for making PR, which is a modern form of “communication” and an academic discipline an example of this “gold” means establishing that it is actually a redeemable thing… and not just saying whatever it takes to get people to believe whatever you want.

First off, it’s worth making the distinction between “media relations” and “public relations” – media relations is a subset, an important subset, of PR, and its really where my expertise lies. But media relations will be a bit piecemeal, and disconnected from an organisation’s priorities – or in this case the mission of the church – if it isn’t part of a bigger communications plan that considers what your message is, and what its implications are for the public, and how you’re going to communicate your message so that the public understands it.

I was a Christian before I started working – so my approach to PR, and my PR ethics (and before that, my approach to journalistic ethics which I thought about while at Uni) were shaped by my faith. I think this actually made me better at my job, because I think the murky side of PR which is caricatured as “spin” and prides itself on not answering questions with anything but a repeated “key message” or not engaging with criticism is a communications cul de sac, which will hopefully eventually die out when people realise what sort of politics and public discourse it produces, and that it erodes the very trust that PR should be seeking to build. I think that’s starting to happen. I was more interested in full, and pre-emptive, disclosure of stuff that went wrong, never lying by commission, or omission, showing how key messages related to issues, questions, and real life for real people, and maintaining a relationship with journalists and the public by generally being trustworthy. This didn’t always happen, and it may be that I’m incredibly naive.

Conforming to the type of PR that involves essentially selling one’s soul and becoming a robotic sound bite speaker driven by self interest, or the desire to win, or conforming our message to whatever medium we’re speaking to – so, for example, going on Q&A to score cheap points by insulting the views of the people next to you, rather than listening to what’s being said and offering a gentle opinion – would be a case of turning the gold we plunder into a golden calf (see this Matthias Media piece on being mindful of how we use “gold”).

So when I talk about PR I’m essentially assuming this worldview, and this definition. Which isn’t always what other people are operating with.

But what are the implications for this? I’d say we need to think about how we do the media relations part (and you can read my thinking about how to do that here), but that needs to be a subset of thinking about communication, of our key message (the gospel, how king Jesus changes lives through his death and resurrection and the launch of his not yet fully realised Kingdom), how it relates to our audience (everybody), and the manner in which we’ll communicate this (I’d suggest Paul’s “all things to all men” 1 Cor 9:19-23). I think we need to think about what theoretical frameworks or disciplines we can use – like Augustine – and what mediums we can adapt – like Luther.

The media engagement stuff is useful, in a sense, without this sort of thought and planning. If you have an event you want to promote, or something. Which is why I write how to posts. But it gets supercharged when you plug it into some strategic thinking about how you’re going to communicate to the same person in an attempt to build, or nurture, a relationship with them. A relationship doesn’t have to mean you know their name, or have their phone number, that would be nice – but a “brand” type relationship means they don’t just know who you are, but have some idea of what you stand for, and how that is relevant to them. This is what “public relations” is about.

Public relations ultimately isn’t so much about knowing how to say what you want to say. It’s about knowing why you’re saying something, and who you’re saying it to. This is where having some sort of Public Relations or Communications Strategy for your brand – in this case, your church, which is essentially a subset of a much bigger franchise – is essential. We’re never going to be able to sit down and get a universal “Communication Strategy” for the church beyond the Great Commission – so I’d argue each church has a responsibility to think about how it communicates the gospel as part of its call to participate in the Mission of God.

A Public Relations strategy starts with identifying what it is that you, as an entity, want to communicate, and why. I’d say that’s relatively easy for us in the first instance. It’s the gospel. But then it should probably include what you want to communicate as your church’s distinctives – what’s your point of difference from other churches, on the basis of your context, or theological convictions. What do you “do” that you want people to know about before they come into your doors? What do you do that you want people to know about when they come through your doors (at Creek Road we have some really helpful “Plumb Lines” that describe our approach to church).

Then it identifies “who” you want to relate to – and should include internal stakeholders – our members, leadership teams, elders, staff, as well as our external stakeholders – the people in our community, non-Christian friends and family members with some association with the church, the people of our state and nation… and what sort of channels we’d use to talk to them in the most authentic and relational way possible.

Then it moves to “how” best to relate to these groups – you’re probably best off relating to as many of the internal stakeholders face to face, or as “authentically” as possible. Your communication should be a reflection of your relationship. So it’s ok to communicate to people you don’t know in the pages of your local paper, but it’s probably not a good idea if your elders are finding out about changes at church when they sit down with the paper for a cuppa. This means, for external people, knowing the demographics of your area, and knowing what sort of channels those demographics use to learn stuff – so to caricature a couple of generations – talk back radio for the oldies, Facebook for anyone under 25…

Once you’ve got the strategy sorted out – you can produce a communications plan – so that what you’re doing integrates with what you’ve decided you should be doing. Steve Kryger at Communicate Jesus posted up one week of his Communications Plan for Church By The Bridge. It’s a really useful example of what applying some thought looks like, and once you get to that stage having some idea how to do things like putting together an email newsletter, or writing a media release, or doing stuff on social media, is really useful. You’ve also got to figure out how often you want to be communicating with people – both those who are on your team so that they stay on the same page – and those outside so that they develop a picture of who you are and what you stand for.

This is what I think when I use the words “Public Relations” – this sort of strategy, planning, and doing – not just the doing. I don’t mean the shadowy stuff where you’re sort of pulling the strings to create opportunities to be heard, or coaching your spokespeople to stay on message and not look silly doing it, or cleaning up the mess in a crisis – though these are all aspects of what PR is.

Public Relations – like this – is useful for getting the members of your church family working together and knowing what you’re on about when they’re out being ambassadors for Christ in your community, it’s useful for managing changes – large or small – in your congregation and the way you do stuff, and it’s useful for presenting the gospel in a way that people have information communicated to them in your community. That’s why I think this is gold worth plundering.

I guess part of the reason I’ve written this post is because I realise that I’ve focused on the “how” more than the “why”… and that’s potentially unhelpful.

Here are some of the things I’ve written about why we should do PR, and the substance of our “message” from my Public Relations resources page

Here are some “how to” posts 

 

Introducing “Resources”: Some content housekeeping

I’ve been working at pulling together some streams of content and sporadic bursts of related content into something that is less “blog” and more “website”…

So I’ve gathered together a few streams of resources, and you can find a nice little drop down menu on the top of the page.

I’ve got:

I’ll be updating these over time, but hopefully this will provide a better return on investment for me content production wise, and be of cal

Allow me to rant a little…

I do some PR consulting on the side. I’ve mentioned that before, I think. I have some really fun clients, and sometimes in the course of my work I’ll write a release from my client’s perspective, and need to include some quotes from a third party, who have a shared interest in what I’m doing. So, for example, if I’m promoting an event, I may include quotes from a supplier who is benefiting from the event. But the release is about the event. Not about the supplier.

I write the quotes for people. I’m happy for them to change them. But I want our releases to be true to our key messages and achieve our communication goals, and this is the best way to do quality control. But I won’t ever put out something that quotes somebody if they haven’t approved the quotes. That’s pretty much standard practice in PR.

Anyway. What I’m not doing, when I send that release to you, however politely I may frame the invitation to contribute to the release, is asking you to send me a completely different release that you have written from the perspective of your company, even if you think it greatly improves on the original.

I remember once being involved in project managing a rebranding of our organisation, where we sent the new logo concept out for input from our sponsors and stakeholders, and one guy took it upon himself not just to make suggestions, but to redraw his own alternative version of the logo. As if we didn’t need to be paying a professional to do the job and think about things like scalability and the ability to produce the logo in embroidered form on t-shirts, and, well, the ability to look like a company who didn’t just pull a hand drawn version of some clipart into its visual identity.

I guess my message is this. You are not a professional. Unless you are. And if a professional gives you some work, provide feedback, but don’t assume that you can just do their job. If everybody could just do their job, there would be no need for that job to exist.

That is all.

How to get good media coverage for your ministry: Be alarmingly loving, for the purpose of being alarmingly loving

As I continue to think through the place of PR in Christian ministry I keep trying to find a balance between Matthew 6:1-4:

” 1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And 1 Peter 2:12…

“12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

… John 13:34-35…

” 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

… Philippians 2:1-4, 12-15

“1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others… 12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky “

I’m wary of prooftexting to justify a particular behaviour – but it seems to me that there’s a balance in the New Testament, which in some sense follows the model of “mission” I think operates in the Old, where the way Christians live, and particularly, the way they love others, is the basis of our testimony, or at least our being noticed as different, and getting a hearing for the gospel.

I think the tension in Matthew 6 is there, but as I think I’ve said elsewhere, what seems to be the focus in that passage is when you’re doing loving things just to be noticed. Just when the spotlight is on. Just for the goodwill. And just for your own reputation. It seems to me that if we’re doing loving things that are consistent with our character, and more importantly, consistent with the gospel, and consistent with considering others better than ourselves, then some sort of interaction with the media may be part of participating in the modern “public sphere.”

Part of my understanding of both the media, and the internet, is that it has in a sense supplanted the marketplace of Acts 17, where Paul took his preaching of the gospel. And participating in the media, or the marketplace, means having a story, and good public relations means this story should be something that is closely tied to the gospel.

There’s nothing more closely tied to the gospel than selfless sacrifice for the sake of others in response to the love of Jesus. It’s also very hard to criticise that sort of behaviour. This is a pretty long preamble to draw your attention to this incredible story published in the SMH’s weekend magazine, and reproduced online.

This is the kind of story that gets noticed.

 

It’s a fair bet that if Jesus Christ were around today, he’d be doing what the Owens are doing in Mount Druitt. They feed the poor and house the homeless. They lead the lost and counsel the conflicted.

Experts at unconditional love

They’re experts at unconditional love: alcoholic mums, runaway kids, petty thieves, everyone’s welcome at the Owens’ home, a four-bedroom brick house that for the past five years has been equal parts street kitchen and safe house, as well as a home for their daughters Kshama, 8, and Kiera, 7.

“The most we’ve had here is 13 people,” Jon says, showing me around the cramped, single-storey home, the floors of which are strewn with sheets and sleeping bags. “They crash on the couches, on the floor. It’s busy, but it’s fun, too, especially at dinner time.”

To make space, Kiera sleeps in Jon and Lisa’s room. Kshama is in an adjoining space, which is really just her parents’ walk-in wardrobe. Jaz, an 18-year-old girl whom the Owens unofficially adopted last year, recently got her own room, so she could study for the HSC.

Wow.

“I grew up in a family where following God was just another part of the Aussie dream, where you have a house in the suburbs, make enough money to relax, mow your lawn and cook your roast on Sunday.” As part of the theology course, however, Jon studied a section of the Bible called The Prophets, with one book, Amos, striking a chord. “At one point God says, ‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.’ I remember thinking, ‘That’s all I do; I go to church and sing songs.’ ”…

His father had always stressed career and professional success. “But Jesus was not about material wealth,” Jon says. “The guy was all about intentional downward mobility! And I realised that what I really wanted was to do something significant in this world, not just piss around at the edges.”These days, however, they live without all that, without fancy food or flash cars or overseas holidays. They relax by watching TV, by listening to Leonard Cohen – Jon is also partial to Sarah Blasko – by cooking or going to the park with their kids. (Monday is “family day”, when Kshama and Kiera get their undivided attention. “Monday is sacred,” Jon says. “That and eating together as a family.”)

Jon allows himself one cigarette on the back porch at night. Neither of them drinks, because they don’t want to support an industry they believe causes so much damage. And yet they are ridiculously, implausibly happy. “Life’s good,” Jon likes to say.

“We’re driven by our faith,” Lisa explains. “I believe that as I respond to people I’m responding to Jesus, because I believe that Jesus is in all of us.”

The full story is heaps bigger. I’m not sure I completely agree with some of the stuff they say, or do. But it’s pretty radical. Noticable. And incredibly hard to criticise.

Free PR Advice: Don’t cry over consumed milk

2% Partly Skimmed Milk Splash
Image Credit: Robbie’s Photo Art, Flickr

One of the big rules of the internet age, especially when emails can be circulated and become viral in, well, seconds, is never put anything in writing that you don’t want going viral.

PR companies should know this. Which is what makes this email from the boss of a PR consulting firm to his staff particularly special.

“So, I am gravely serious when I write this – if I catch someone not replacing the milk, or at least, in the case where the downstairs store has close already, not sending an email to the office so the first person that arrives (usually Christa or me) can pick one up upon arrival – then I am going to fire you. Im not joking. You will be fired for not replacing the milk, and have fun explaining that one to your next employer. This is not a empty threat so PLEASE don’t test me.”

Now he’s saying it’s all a big hyperbolic joke, and there’s been a misunderstanding… but that’s trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Here’s the story on Business Insider.

Being on message for Jesus: What is good PR?

The result of good PR isn’t always a good story (though sometimes it is). That’s one of the foundational points of Public Relations that I probably haven’t made clearly enough in my posts on PR for Jesus. There’s that stupid maxim that “all publicity is good publicity”… if that was the case then more companies would be out committing crimes for the benefit the media coverage brings.

In the comments of my “being on message or Jesus” post – Daniel made the following point regarding Peter Costello’s warning about the idol of positive media coverage:

“His warning to “beware the false idol of positive media coverage” seems at odds with some of what you seem to be saying about public relations.”

It’s not. But this is mostly because I probably haven’t been clear about what the goal of PR is, in terms of media coverage. Positive media coverage is up to the whim of journalists and editors, and largely shaped by the expectations of the readers/viewers of the particular outlet. It’s pretty unlikely, in Australia, for Christians talking about the gospel to be handed positive media coverage on a platter. We get it pretty easily if we criticise the establishment or say something a bit controversial, but that’s not really what I’ve been talking about.

Most situations where prominent Christians are being interviewed in the media are situations where the media is expecting a particular response from a Christian voice on moral issues, or on controversial issues, in which case it would be easy to bang on about morality (ala the ACL), it’s hard to bang on about the gospel – and the gospel is our key message.

One of the other comments on the previous post, from Aaran, said:

“I think there is a fine line between taking the opportunity to talk about Jesus and sounding like a politician on QandA.”

This might be true, and nobody likes those sound bite fests where people fail to engage in an issue because they keep repeating the same mantra like eight second summary of their key message. But at least they’re on message, and you know what the politicians on Q&A stand for – (“not the other guys)… because they’re on message. Good PR finds a balance. Good PR engages with an issue so that you get invited back to talk on another issue. But good PR means gaining a good airing for your message, not necessarily gaining a good story.

So while I’m pretty blithely dismissive of the apparently axiomatic “all publicity is good publicity”… there’s something in it. All publicity that presents and engages with your key message is good publicity. That’s a better summary. If we’re selling a message, which we are as Christians, then we should celebrate when that message gets out with clarity. Our job is to be messengers, to faithfully point people towards the Lord Jesus. That’s not the job of a journalist. We want to make sure that while the journalist does their job putting together a story, we’re doing our job – getting out our message. This means understanding the medium/media a little too – being on message in an interview for the TV news means finding an 8 second summary statement, you’re not going to get much more of an opportunity than that, being on message on Q&A means finding a way to tie the topic to the gospel, to show how the Lord Jesus leads us to a particular response to an issue. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the news story is negative, or if the other panelists shout you down – we’re in the marketplace of ideas, and while it’d be nice to convince the journalist and the panelists, our target audience is really the viewers.

So, back when I was a PR man, we used to measure our media coverage using a bit of a matrix. This was how we decided what dollar value to put on media coverage. Media coverage as editorial is inherently more persuasive than media coverage where you’ve paid for advertising. It’s somebody else blowing your trumpet v you blowing your trumpet. So we started by multiplying the rack rate advertising value by three. This is a pretty arbitrary number, and it’s a pretty arbitrary process. Next we look at the story to see if it featured our key messages, then to see if it featured a “call to action” (similar to the key message but usually, in tourism, details on how to book a holiday etc), then we assessed whether it was a positive story or a negative story. Each of these factors had a multiplier effect on the initial value, of a similar scale. We saw a bad story with a call to action as just as valuable as a good story with our key messages and no call to action (and any combination of the options). But if a story you’ve been involved in doesn’t present your key message/aptly represent your views – then that’s bad PR. That’s where you fail. And that’s where Christians fail if they fail to mention Jesus.

Manipulation and the fine art of persuasion…

Right. I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts into writing for a few weeks. Doing so now was prompted by a possibly throw away line in the Q&A at the Moore College School of Theology as collated by my friend Kutz. I wasn’t there. But this line resonates with a position I’ve been trying to articulate lately (the line is from Peter Bolt):

“Manipulation can be positive. If you’re doing it to align people to the word of God then it’s a good thing.”

Manipulation and persuasion are essentially seeking to do the same thing – move a person from point a to point b. So what’s the difference? I’ve settled on this distinction…

Persuasion is the transparent act where two parties enter a dialogue with one hoping to move the other from point a to point b.

Manipulation is less transparent and involves one party trying to shift another party from point a to point b, probably without their knowledge.

I’ve settled on this because in my experience if you catch somebody trying to shift your position when they haven’t told you that’s what they’re doing you feel annoyed and accuse them of “manipulating” you, where manipulating is a pejorative. There are heaps of ways to manipulate, and most of them fall outside the classical tools of persuasion – pathos (emotions), logos (facts and words), and ethos (how you act/live). Tools of manipulation tend to involve tugging really hard on one of those threads, where persuasion is a more subtle movement, kind of like a puppeteer with a marionette.

I reckon manipulation is fine. I know we hate it. But it’s a great art, until you get caught. Like pickpocketing, not Oliver Twist style, but like the TV guy who takes your watch while you’re talking to you and then gives it to you later. Manipulation, honest manipulation, probably involves pointing out what you’ve achieved to the person after the fact, so they recognise they’ve moved from point a to point b, but during the process your mark should be a bit like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water…

This all came up, for me, when I was told I needed to engage a little more with the emotions when I preach (because I’m a pretty rational/stoic type of thinker). So the summaries of the Moore College Lectures on Kutz’s blog have been interesting. I react against this suggestion, not because I think tugging on the emotions is “manipulation” as though that’s a bad thing, but because I think I’m more likely to get caught out if I’m doing something that isn’t within my normal character. I’m all for subtle chord changes, a little bit of emotive muzak in a movie, and all the other little “manipulative” tools – I’m also for putting a bit of emotion into a sermon, like a tear jerking illustration, I’m just against doing it in a way that means I’m likely to get caught.

Persuasion is pretty safe ground, but doing both is potentially more effective, I’m just not sure what that looks like. Most people in the pews are there hoping to be persuaded (or taught), so there’s implied consent there for being “manipulated,” providing your end point is something you’ve implicitly agreed to (essentially the ends identified by Peter Bolt in his quote). It’s a little murkier when it comes to PR and marketing, but manipulation is where the fun is. It’s making ads that are more than just a boring presentation of a product, it’s also harder to do thanks to the Gruen Transfer and market awareness about the tools advertisers employ. Anyway. Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

Being on Message for Jesus: Mike O’Connor Interview

Mike, also known as M-Dog, O’Connor is the minister at Rockhampton Pressy Church. He’s a top bloke who’s always on the lookout for ways to love his community and point them to Jesus. This means using the media a bit, and finding quirky angles to latch on to in order to get Jesus front and centre. I interviewed him because I wanted some regional balance because I think PR is more effective and a bit easier in the less crowded regional markets. Anyway. He says some good stuff.

1. How much media stuff have you guys done?
We’ve had fair bit to do with the media during my three years in Rockhampton. I was interviewed by TV and Radio during our church’s involvement with the Rockhampton Flood recovery and also during our church’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.
I’ve also written a couple of opinion pieces for the local daily newspaper “The Rockhampton Bulletin” about same-sex marriage and about a pizza franchise called “Hell’s Pizza”.

I also use facebook for ministry, I have lots of non-christian ‘friends’ and I’ve taken up twitter again recently.

2. What benefits do you see from engaging with the media?

There are many benefits – I struggle to think of any disadvantages.
In a technological age, the media provide another platform, if not the greatest platform for the church to proclaim the gospel news about Jesus. The media access more people than I can ever reach on a Sunday with the good news about Jesus. We have a message – they have the medium. Our culture is media saturated and so the church needs to engage with the media if we still want people to take seriously the claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

3. What do you think stops churches engaging with the media?

It’s hard to speculate accurately, perhaps it’s a matter of not knowing how to use the media or not knowing what things might be in the public interest where the church’s voice would be welcomed into the debate or expected to be heard?

I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst christians when it comes to the media. The idea of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’, ‘clean’ and unclean’ still shapes a lot of church thinking and the media is seen as ‘part of the problem’ in an ‘evil world’. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the the message of Jesus. This must be done in an intelligent and respectful way, by which I mean, knowing what battles are worth fighting for and the kind of voice or tone we bring to the debate.

4. What do you think it looks like when Christians do media engagement badly?
It’s embarrassing! I think bad engagement means picking the wrong battles and speaking with the wrong voice. There have been a number of examples lately across all mediums concerning same-sex and religious education in schools where we’ve spoken with the wrong tone or picked the wrong battle. What happens is that people think the church is about rules and regulations because essentially that’s what we are telling them. This only perpetuates the stereo-type that Christianity is becoming more and more irrelevant as our culture seeks to be morally progressive. We lose our right to speak about anything intelligently, we’re no longer being invited to the discussion. Bad engagement means no-one is listening when we want to talk to them about Jesus and we’re left wondering why people want nothing to do with the church!

5. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?

I would see it as essential. If the message that God has given the church to tell the World is about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, then surely that’s what the church needs to be communicating at every opportunity. If we aren’t talking about Jesus we are irrelevant and an out of touch organisation with strict and exclusive morals. Problem is we’re too busy attacking the issues demanding the world listen when really our job is to show them how Jesus is relevant. Its not the role of the church to make Jesus relevant to the world but to show the world how he is relevant.

I wonder if we’ve lost that distinction?

6. Can you tell us a little bit about the Hell Pizza thing?
Sure, an article appeared in our local newspaper about the opening of a pizza franchise in Brisbane and a local Pentecostal Pastor outraged that such demonic activity was taking place in their area. The Pentecostal Pastor was calling for a boycott of the store and for it’s closure.

I made a comment online about how the Pentecostal Pastor was over-reacting and being unhelpful. It was a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.

I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.

Being on Message for Jesus: Guy Mason Interview

Guy Mason is the Melbourne minister (from City On A Hill) who used a discussion about a controversial piece of art on Sunrise to talk about Jesus to a national audience. I thought he did a great job, so I asked if I could interview him, mostly for the purposes of writing a story, but also because I thought he’d have good stuff to say based on his performance. So here are his answers to my questions.

Guy has some training and experience in Public Relations, and an M. Div from Ridley College in Melbourne.

1. How did the Sunrise interview come about?

They called me on a Sunday, while I was at Starbucks prepping for our evening service. I’ve done a number of spots for them before; since planting City on a Hill we have attracted a bit of press – especially recently with articles in the Age, Herald Sun, interview with Triple J. I don’t take all opportunities that come up, but am happy to serve where I can.

2. With your PR background do you proactively look for opportunities to engage the media?

I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved. I don’t hunt down media (like I would in a PR consultancy) but as the Spirit leads I follow. Interestingly, I find a lot of media people (like most Australians) are curious about Jesus. However, their impression of most churches and religious groups is that they are solely interested in speaking against culture. As a Christian I believe there is much about culture to reject – but also, much to receive and then also aspects to redeem. For example, in an interview with Triple J I was given an opportunity to talk about the gospel and sexuality. The common view is that all churches teach that sex is evil. In contrast secular culture treats sex not as the devil, but a God to worship. I then shared how as Christians we believe sex is neither devil or god, but rather a gift from God to be enjoyed frequently and freely in marriage.

3. Do you think other churches need PR experience to do this?

I think we all have much to learn in this area. The very first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have and continue to learn a lot from this friendship.

As I understand PR, it is the practice of understanding an audience/demographic/culture and communicating a message in a comprehensible and relevant way. As a believer we are all called to be communicators of the greatest message in Jesus. We don’t want to change the message at all – but consideration to the audience is key. We need to be grappling with questions like – who are we speaking to? what language do they speak? what is their understanding of Jesus? what obstacles exist that get in the way of them seeing Jesus for who he really is? what are the most effective and culturally relevant methods of communicating Jesus? All of this sits under the banner of God’s providence and power who is at work equipping the saints to proclaim the good news of Jesus and awaken unregenerate hearts to the majesty that is Christ.

4. What made you decide to respond to the art work the way you did?

To be honest, it was a Monday morning following a long day of preaching, prayer, and I was pretty tired. I asked people to pray for me and that God would use my words for his glory. I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get sound bite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.

5. Is there anything you regret not saying?

All the time. I always walk away from church, interviews, conversations saying “I should have said this!” Thankfully, God’s grace is made perfect in my weakness.

6. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?

In Paul’s letter to the corinthians he says – “whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Whether I’m chatting with my mates at the football, catching up with a young bloke exploring Christianity, counselling a couple going through a marriage crises, or speaking before thousands of Aussies in a channel seven studio, I want to lift up Jesus. I’m not going to do this perfectly, or even helpfully all the time – but pray that God uses everything I do for the good of our nation and the glory of his name.

7. What were the potential problems, from your perspective, with answering the Sunrise questions differently?

I didn’t give them the controversy they perhaps wanted. On other occasions I’ve rejected media spots because of the corner they wanted to put ‘christianity’ in – that churches are judgemental, divided and irrelevant. I’ve then watched as the spot was filled by someone else who fell right into their plan (either wittingly or unwittingly).

But while many media agencies like controversy, Sunrise appreciate honesty, authenticity and anything that is unexpected. These are welcome in a world of political double talk.

In any interview you will have one team wanting you to answer one way, and another team hoping you say something completely different. At the end of the day I want to live for Jesus. It’s his opinion that matters.

8. What do you think are the benefits of doing media stuff like this interview?

We are working really hard these days to get people to come to us and hear the message of Jesus. If opportunities open up for us to ‘go to the people’ than praise God. The gospel is for all people and our city is full of people whom God is calling to Jesus. In addition, we are called to be in the world. Jesus said, as the father has sent me so I send you. The gospel light is to be present in homes, the workplace, the university, the television network. Jesus said – we are a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.

Christians in the Media: Being on message for Jesus

Well. I wrote a piece for eternity on some of the stuff I’ve posted about lately in response to Guy Mason’s piece on Sunrise, but the nature of news is that it needs to be new and it wasn’t new by the time the new Eternity came out. So rather than letting this good gear go to waste, I’m going to post it here. In three posts. Firstly, this post, is the article I sent (a slightly extended edition), and in the follow up posts I’ll share the interviews with Guy Mason from City On A Hill church in Melbourne, and Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton Pressy. Two sharp guys who are grappling with what it means to use the media as a platform for the gospel.

Here’s the article.

Being on message for Jesus in Public Relations

Religion and the church are on the nose, but Jesus is still pretty popular with the average Aussie. So said the research behind last year’s Jesus All About Life campaign. Gruen Transfer panelist Todd Sampson summed the findings up as “Jesus is cool,” but the church “is letting the brand down.”

One of the foundational principles of public relations is to stay on message, to keep answers relevant to the brand. For Christians this means talking about Jesus, and our response to moral issues should be based on our relationship with him.

Guy Mason, pastor of Melbourne’s City on a Hill church has a background in public relations, his recent appearance on Sunrise to discuss a series of sculptures depicting Jesus as a transvestite, a cross dresser, and an indigenous man, is an example of staying on message.

The segment was billed as a “religious controversy,” the artist essentially accused anybody offended by his work of bigotry, while Guy defused the situation and invited people to consider Jesus’ death in the place of sinners. He says his aim when given a media platform is to talk clearly about Jesus.

“I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved,” Guy said.

“I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get soundbite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.”

Modern newsrooms are time poor and under-resourced, a 2010 study found that half the stories we consume originate with public relations, which means churches can be proactive about getting the gospel a hearing in the public sphere.

Guy Mason doesn’t pursue media coverage like he did as a public relations consultant, he picks and chooses opportunities, but he is aware of the benefits of establishing a rapport with the media.

“The first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot from this friendship.”

“Jesus said we’re a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.”

Former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello told a recent gathering of Anglican Clergy in Melbourne to beware the false idol of positive media coverage. He urged Christian commentary on issues to stick to the gospel and expect not to be popular.

“If the Church is going to speak on the issues of the day, it should be a distinctive contribution,” he said.

“The historic message of the Church, the Gospel, is a timeless message. It’s for every age. It does not have its relevance defined by what preoccupies us for the moment.”

Public Relations can be a blessing for regional churches looking to engage with their community.

Rockhampton Presbyterian Church Minister Mike O’Connor has built a relationship with the local media in his three years in regional Queensland. He’s had media coverage across a range of issues, from pizza shops to the recent Queensland floods.

“I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst Christians when it comes to the media. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the message of Jesus. We have the message, they have the medium.”

It was this approach that led to a feature article in the local paper after Mike scoffed at suggestions that Christians should boycott the Hell Pizza chain if it set up shop in his city.

“I made a comment on an online article saying that it was just a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.”

“I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.”

Peter Costello on how Christians should approach the media

I miss Peter Costello, and it seems being out of politics has freed him up a little bit in terms of speaking about his faith and dishing out advice to church leaders. This talk he gave to Anglican Ministers in Melbourne last week looks like a cracker.

He’s still funny.

“If I had been to church 40 weeks a year, I have probably listened to 1000 sermons and tonight could be payback time.”

Here’s the substance from a story with the Melbourne Anglican

“You only get a good media coverage if you agree with the media’s views.”

“The media has its own view of the world… and if you fall in with that, you will get a good press but if you want to promote the Christian Gospel, you will not.”

“The first thing I would say to the Church is, don’t measure your relevance by the amount of media coverage you get.”

“I actually think that media and celebrity is one of the great false idols of the modern age.”

“If the Church is going to speak on the issues of the day, it should be a distinctive contribution,” he said.
“The historic message of the Church, the Gospel, is a timeless message. It’s for every age. It does not have its relevance defined by what preoccupies us for the moment.”

“My message to you is that you have a wonderful calling and a timeless message and we look to you to keep us in faith.

“Don’t ever overlook the fact that no matter how high you are in Australia, you still need nourishment for your soul.”

What a week…

I feel like I owe you all an apology. But there’s a blog out there that collects lame apologies from people for not posting on their blogs… and I want no part of that. I’ll find the link soon. I promise.

Here’s a snapshot of my last eight days. Well. A series of snapshots. We spent the week in Townsville where I was consulting for the company consulting for the V8 race that was held up there over the weekend.

Here’s the media centre I sat in for four days.

Fun week. Townsville still feels a bit like home. And I do love working in PR. But it was back to college today. Five subjects this semester. Hopefully there’ll still be time for this little ol’ blog.