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