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«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»

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In fact, if religion communicators are following the dominant concept of modern public relations practice—known as Excellence Theory (Botan & Hazelton, 2006; Grunig & Grunig, 1992; Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, 2006)—they may be unwittingly contributing to the membership churn in the American religion marketplace. Excellence Theory maintains that the best organizations establish two-way symmetrical relationships with key publics. Those two-way relationships allow social groups to influence the organization as much as it influences the publics. But if faith groups modify their practices to embrace temporal values, they will lose vitality, members and social influence, according to Church-Sect Theory. That is an area of religion sociology developed over the past 80 years to explain denominational development—especially in the United States (Finke & Stark, 2005; Niebuhr, 1929; Stark & Finke, 2000; Swatos, 1998; Troeltsch, 1931; Weber, 1922/1993).

Church-Sect Theory classifies mainline Protestant denominations as the most churchlike religious groups in the United States (Carroll & Roof, 1993: Finke & Stark, 2005; Johnson, 1963; McKinney, 1998; Michaelsen & Roof, 1986; Niebuhr. 1929; Roof & McKinney, 1987). That means these church groups have made the most accommodations to the values of secular society. As predicted by Church-Sect Theory, those denominations have been losing members and social influence for the past century (Finke & Stark, 2005; Miller, 2008a; Roof & McKinney, 1987; Twitchell, 2007;

Wuthnow, 1988).

Since mainline denominations have the longest history of using public relations, those communication practices might be connected—if they promote accommodation to secular social values—to the decline of those groups. If that is the case, public relations practitioners serving mainline denominations—especially men and women belonging to the Religion Communicators Council—might face an ethical quandary. The council’s Guidelines for Ethical Conduct, originally adopted in 1955 and last revised in 2006, call members to “be a responsible advocate for the faith group for which I work” (Guidelines for ethical conduct, 2006). Promoting public relations practices that hurt a faith group’s public witness would appear to violate the “responsible advocate” standard. Nevertheless, the two-way symmetrical approach to public relations, the capstone of Excellence Theory, might be doing just that.

This research examined how religion communicators in the United States practiced public relations. By replicating survey research done by Glen Broom, David Dozier, James Grunig and their colleagues between 1982 and 2002, this study expanded scholarship on roles that communicators play within organizations and extended Excellence Public Relations Theory into an unexplored specialty. One aim was to identify what models of public relations from Excellence Theory that religion communicators followed. Furthermore, this project explored the interaction between Excellence Theory and Church-Sect Theory.

This project surveyed members of the Religion Communicators Council and the

top executive of their organization. The goal was to see:

+ How religion communicators in the United States practice public relations in today’s dynamic religious environment.

+ Whether religion communicators approach public relations differently from secular practitioners.

+ What faith group leaders expect from communication and their public relations officers.

+ If communicators for mainline Protestant denominations approach public relations differently from practitioners representing other U.S. faith groups.

+ If religion communication practices—especially those of mainline Protestant denominations—might contribute to the membership churn in the dynamic U.S. religion market.

Chapter 2 offers a historical and conceptual overview of religion communication in the United States. That discussion includes a review of research in secular organizations on roles that communicators play. A recurring question is whether religion communicators are flacks, hacks, managers or technicians. Chapter 3 looks at public relations practices and theories more broadly. This chapter traces the field’s conceptual development from propaganda, promotion and persuasion to information, relationships and mutual influence. Those developments lay the foundation for Excellence Theory.

Chapter 4 presents Church-Sect Theory as one way to understand the dynamic U.S.

religion marketplace and the decline of mainline Protestant denominations. Chapter 5 explains the survey and statistical methods used to explore questions about religion communication practices. Chapter 6 presents the survey results. Chapter 7 discusses implications of those findings.

Little research has examined the interaction of religion and mass media (Buddenbaum, 2001) or how faith groups use communication to manage relationships (Tilson, 2001, 2004, 2006). This study is one attempt to begin filling that void.

–  –  –

U.S. Christian churches—both local congregations and denominations—have used mass media publicity and advertising for promotion since the late 19th century (Curtis, 2001; Moore, 1994; Reisner, 1913; Stelzler, 1908). During much of that time, religion communicators—particularly members of the Religion Communicators Council and its predecessors—have debated the proper approach to fashioning mass media messages. Should their mission be to inform (educate) or transform (persuade/influence) people in the audiences they want to reach? Should religion communicators operate as promoters, advocates, mediators or flacks? Or should they operate as in-house journalists, public information providers or hacks (Cutlip & Center, 1952, 1958, 1964, 1971, 1978;





Cutlip, Center & Broom, 1985, 1994, 2000; De Vries, 1976; Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979; Stoody, 1959; Wilbur, 1969, 1982)?

The flack-vs.-hack debate illustrates a key conceptual division among religion communicators. In this chapter, Flack, a term associated with publicists, press agents and other so-called “spin doctors,” represents the promotional or persuasion approach to public relations. The press agentry/publicity and two-way asymmetrical models of public relations (see Chapter 3) developed by Grunig and Hunt (1984) describe different aspects of this approach. Hack, a person hired to do routine writing, represents the journalistic approach to public relations. Grunig and Hunt’s public information model exemplifies that approach (see Chapter 3).

The flack-vs.-hack division points to one area of study among religion communicators: What roles do they play for their faith communities? Since 1979, scholars have examined a similar question concerning secular public relations practitioners (Broom, 1982; Broom & Dozier, 1986; Dozier, 1992; Dozier & Broom, 1995; Broom & Smith, 1979). That research has identified a slightly different division of tasks: manager and technician.

This chapter reviews information about public relations roles in both religious and secular settings. Section I looks at how members of the Religion Communicators Council have addressed the flack-vs.-hack idea since 1929. Section II reviews public relations roles research.

–  –  –

Many texts have linked religious activities throughout history to what we now call public relations practices. For example, Peter G. Osgood, a long-time public relations executive, described John the Baptist as an advance man for Jesus of Nazareth (Wilcox & Cameron, 2005). Paul’s New Testament letters to early Christians have been likened to a modern public relations campaign (Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007; Wilcox & Cameron, 2005). Some Arab public relations scholars have called the Islamic prophet Mohammed (A.D. 570-632) the first public relations practitioner in their culture. He used divine pronouncements (suras) to shape social action (Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007).

In 1095 Pope Urban II reportedly employed communication techniques still common today to recruit thousands of Christians to fight Muslims in the Holy Crusades (Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007; Wilcox & Cameron, 2005). Promotional tactics by the Archbishop of Canterbury mobilized English nobles in 1215 to stand against the king. These efforts eventually pressured King John to accept the Magna Carta (Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007). In 1622 Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation for Propagating the Faith to counter the Protestant Reformation. The congregation generated writings to persuade people to accept the faith and doctrines taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Those publications were called propaganda (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000; Jowett and O’Donnell, 1999;

Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007; Seitel, 2001; Sproule, 1997).

Presbyterian pastor Charles Stelzle appears to have written the first modern book in the United States on church media use, Principles of Successful Church Advertising, in 1908 (Moore, 1994; Reisner, 1913). By the time Edward L.

Bernays wrote the first book on public relations in 1923 (Cutlip, 1994; Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000; Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007), at least two other books on church media use had been published:

Church Publicity by Methodist pastor Christian F. Reisner in 1913 and Handbook of Church Advertising by Methodist pastor Francis H. Case in 1921. These early church writers cited the value of advertising and publicity—terms used interchangeably—in boosting church attendance, increasing giving and reaching people for Christ (Case, 1921; Campaign for church advertising and publicity, 1916; Reisner, 1913; Stelzler, 1908). “We are mixing faith with business,” Case wrote. “… They must mix if civilization is to endure” (Quicke, 1994, p. 396).

Bernays acknowledged these early 20th century church publicity efforts in his 1928 work, Propaganda.

Many churches have made paid advertising and organized propaganda part of their regular activities. They have developed church advertising committees, which make use of newspapers and the billboard, as well as of the pamphlet.

Many denominations maintain their own periodicals. The Methodist Board of Publication and Information systematically gives announcements and releases to the press and the magazines. (Bernays, 1928, p. 150) As radio developed during the 1920s, Protestant churches quickly realized the medium’s promotional potential. Sixty-three of the 600 stations operating in 1925 were licensed to churches (Quicke, 1994). But not all Christian leaders agreed that churches should advertise or be using mass media. Many preachers and theologians associated media use with World War I propaganda efforts and classified promotional messages as manipulative tools of the devil (the source of evil in this world) (Pritchett & Pritchett, 1999).

Within this context, communication executives of several U.S. mainline Protestant denominations met in Washington in 1929 to form the Religious Publicity Council—forerunner of today’s Religion Communicators Council (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979). The council is the nation’s oldest public relations professional association (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000). The group’s original purpose was to promote publication of religion news in major U.S. newspapers (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979).

Public Relations Pioneers Influence Debate Two public relations pioneers influenced the debate within both the council and U.S. faith circles about the proper approach to religion communication. They were Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays. Lee joined with Colonel George F. Parker, an oldtime political operative and press agent, in 1904 to open nation’s third publicity bureau.

Bernays established a competing public relations agency in 1919 (Cutlip, 1994; Newsom, Turk & Krunkeberg, 2007). Lee and Bernays approached public relations differently. Lee was a hack. Bernays was a flack.

Mass communication historians generally have cited Lee as the “father of public relations.” But Bernays spent most of his life trying to earn that designation (Cutlip, 1994;

Ewen, 1998; Olasky, 1987; Tye, 1998). He regularly issued fact sheets claiming to be the father of modern public relations (Cutlip, 1994). By outliving his contemporaries (Lee died in 1934), Bernays was eventually able to capture the “father of public relations” title (Cutlip, 1994; Tye, 1998). The headline on his March 10, 1995, obituary in The New York Times read, “Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ and Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103” (“Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ and Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103,” 1995).

But the official Religious Public Relations Council history, published in 1979 to mark the group’s golden anniversary, recognizes Lee, the “son of a Georgia (Methodist) minister,” as the father of public relations (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 5). The council history never mentions Bernays. Furthermore, the organizational history claims an indirect link to Lee through Parker, his first partner. From 1913 to 1919 Parker served as secretary for press and publicity for the Committee of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church and was known to many of the council’s founders (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979). Parker died in New York in 1928, the year before RCC was founded, at age 80 (Cutlip, 1994; Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000).

Lee, a publicist (hack), saw his role as telling the stories of his clients (usually corporations) through publicity, a communication function. Often called “earned media” today, publicity describes the dissemination of planned messages through selected mass media outlets without payment. The objective is to further the interests of the person or organization supplying the information (Cannon, 1995).

As a preacher’s kid, Lee was an attractive father figure for religion communicators to identify with. He grew up hearing his father, a Methodist, proclaim a liberal Protestant gospel: Man could create heaven on earth by establishing a new, cooperative social order.

That social gospel influenced the advice Lee gave corporate leaders about working for the public’s good (Olasky, 1987).

Lee maintained an interest in religion and theological questions throughout his career.



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