«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»
Had this study detected a connection to the church-sect dynamic, the research design—replicating part of earlier Excellence work—might not have been adequate for meaningful interpretation. Unit of analysis as well as the other level of analysis problems would have arisen.
H1 and H2 see denominations as the key unit of analysis. Survey respondents represented either mainline denominations or other similar faith groups. That denominational emphasis reflected Niebuhr’s (1929) organizational conceptualization of U.S. Christian groups and the dichotomous nature of church-sect scholarship in sociological research.
Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002) analyzed public relations practices in 327 secular groups at the individual, organizational and program levels. This project probed public relations practices by religion communicators and views from faith group leaders at the individual and organizational levels. This study design had no clear standard for judging how, if, at what level or when a faith group made accommodations to accept its social environment.
Sociologists have generally judged where a faith group sits on the church-sect continuum (Johnson, 1963; Finke & Stark, 2001) based on how exclusive it makes membership and participation requirements (Niebuhr, 1929; Stark, 1985; Stark & Bainbridge, 1979, 1980, 1985, Stark & Finke, 2000; Troeltsch, 1931; Weber, 1922/1993, 1949). But other ways of identifying accommodations to secular society are possible.
Scholars could, for example, see if faith group members had different opinions about political and moral questions from the general public. Miller (2008b) reported survey data by faith group on current political questions. Another standard might compare faith group operations to secular businesses. Twitchell (2007) noted that non-mainline Protestant magachurches had often adopted secular advertising and merchandising techniques to attract visitors and keep members involved.
Some faith groups, therefore, might be more willing than others to accept social influence and adapt their witness in certain situations. Other groups may be willing to accommodate social pressures on certain issues but not others. Both situational and issues changes would usually be made at the organizational or program levels. A key variable in that decision making may be how central the issue is to core beliefs. This project could not have addressed or adequately interpreted those factors.
Furthermore, while religion communicators in this project could be grouped by faith group, not all were functioning at a denominational level or even in denominational roles. Some served church-related agencies, colleges, retirement facilities, children’s homes and local congregations. Others worked for regional organizations or local groups (congregations or temples). Communicators in specialized ministries or regional offices may operate in different social/cultural environments from those at a national level or those in a local congregation. Interactions—as well as the way communicators and their leaders view interactions—may be different. The wide range of work environments did not become clear until survey results were collected. Recoding respondents into “mainline” and “other” groups for the church-sect analysis did not take those differences into account.
Data were collected about whether RCC members worked at a local, regional or national organization. But since the initial analysis showed no differences between mainline and other groups, applying that information as a control proved pointless.
Nevertheless, the varied places that RCC members work should be a consideration in future research.
Time could be another factor in social accommodation. Some denominations may resist change initially but adapt their positions over time as cultural values evolve. These long-term changes may come at an organizational level of analysis and even modify what had been considered core beliefs (McKinney, 1998; Spilka, Hood, Hundsberger & Gorsuch, 2003; Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). This study captured data about only one moment in 2006-07 for communicators and 2008 for leaders. The questionnaires did not include adequate measures to interpret how churches accepted their environment at multiple levels of analysis over time or to evaluate the moral questions related to social accommodations.
Distinctions between peripheral topics at the program level and core beliefs at the organizational level could have become especially muddled in this study design. Mainline Protestant denominations have historically made social reform and social justice issues— which may involve a variety of program initiatives—key parts of their public witness (an organizational concern). Official denominational (organizational) positions on such program topics as equal rights for various groups (women, racial/ethnic groups, homosexuals), abortion, birth control, divorce and capital punishment have evolved through history (Finke & Stark, 2005; McKinney, 1998; Michaelsen, & Roof, 1986; Roof & McKinney, 1987; Stark & Finke, 2000; Wuthnow, 1988). Niebuhr (1929) called such program changes moral failures. They reflected the surrender at the organizational level of faith groups to social forces of class, politics and power. Finke and Stark (2005), Roof and McKinney (1987), Stark and Finke (2000) and Wuthnow (1988) generally agreed.
They attributed the declining social influence of mainline denominations to program decisions that led to organizational changes. These accommodations weakened the spiritual vitality of mainline groups. These assessments imply a societal level of analysis.
Grunig (1992, 2002, 2006), on the other hand, described accommodations between an organization and its publics as normative and ethical. He appeared to be combining organizational and societal levels in his moral judgment. Analysis at the societal level was beyond this study’s design.
Design flaws aside, this study left the ethical question raised in Chapter 1 unanswered. Could using two-way symmetrical public relations present a moral quandary for RCC members?
RCC ethical statements have historically encouraged council members to be responsible promoters of their faith groups. The council’s first ethical statement (Professional Aims of Christian Public Relations Personnel, adopted in 1955 and revised in 1970) directed members “to keep in mind the basic purpose of my faith and direct all my professional activities toward achieving that purpose” (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 32). For mainline Protestant practitioners that purpose would reflect the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20a): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” That commission does not allow any of the moral surrender to social forces of class, politics and power that Niebuhr (1929) condemned.
The current 22-point Religion Communicators Council Guidelines for Ethical Conduct, adopted in 2006, encourages each member to be “a responsible advocate for the faith group for which I work.” Another provision says RCC members should “promote mutual understanding and respect among faith groups, the public and the media” (Guidelines for ethical conduct, 2006). The moral challenge appears to be promoting mutual understanding without letting the interaction change the denomination and its essential witness. Finke and Stark (2005), Roof and McKinney (1987), Stark and Finke (2000) and Wuthnow (1988) say accommodation to social values has sapped the spiritual vitality of mainline Protestant denominations. That weakened vitality is causing those denominations to lose market share and influence in today’s dynamic U.S. religious landscape (Miller 2008a).
But 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. In fact, the management in Excellence organizations is open to outside influence and not afraid of outside threats (Dozier, 1992). Clearly, according to Church-Sect Theory, such two-way influence and openness could harm mainline Protestant denominations. That would be bad, according to Niebuhr (1929), and at odds with the RCC “responsible advocate” ethical standard. But would two-way symmetrical relationships be harmful in all cases?
When—if ever—and at what levels could religion communicators encourage mutual influence without violating the “responsible advocate” standard? Future research will have to address those questions.
they practiced public relations in 2006-2007. Results from faith group leaders provide a second snapshot. It shows what executives who supervise those communicators say they want from public relations in 2008. These survey results establish benchmarks for future research. Follow-up studies could—much like Broom (1986) and Broom and Dozier (1995)—look at how the roles of Religion Communicators Council members evolve in coming years. Related research could collect data on what roles members of other faithrelated communication groups (i.e., Baptist Communicators Association, Episcopal Communicators, Presbyterian Communicators, United Methodist Association of Communicators) play. Future studies could compare how different approaches to role enactment affect the influence of various faith groups in the dynamic U.S. religion marketplace. Other research might examine the hack-vs.-flack dynamic—especially in light of the current, fast-changing social media environment—or whether persuasion or relationship building most effectively advances public witness.
Additional future research might examine how practitioners from other specialized public relations organizations compared to those in the Excellence studies.
Those groups might include the Agricultural Relations Council, National Association of Government Communicators and the National School Public Relations Association.
Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002) have suggested yet another line of research. It would probe the three communication dimensions underlying the four models: one-way or two-way, symmetrical or asymmetrical and mediated or interpersonal. Such research moves beyond the four classic public relations models. It would require new methods and might avoid some of the measurement problems associated with the Excellence questionnaires. Such research might also build on one idea in this study and examine the morality behind various public relations approaches.
The communication environment has changed in the brief time since the snapshots in this study were taken. That evolving environment offers still other opportunities for research. Social media, for instance, have become much more important public relations tools since the data in this study were collected. Capabilities of social media change how organizations can relate to various publics. Those interactive relationships fit the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical models more closely than the one-way public information or press agentry/publicity models. Emerging tools, such as social networks, blogs, online video and Twitter, may force religion communicators to change their approaches to public relations practice. The data set in this study does include responses—not analyzed in this project—on how religion communicators used blogs, podcasts, e-newsletters and other emerging communication tools. That data could provide a baseline for future studies.
But future studies should avoid the obvious shortcomings of this project. Those include not recognizing in advance the range of jobs religion communicators fill, conceptually overreaching and asking too many questions online. Religion communicators do not just work in national, regional and local faith group offices. They serve in colleges, health-care facilities, welfare organizations, outreach groups and allied agencies. Each environment could influence the way religion communicators practice public relations. Survey questions from Excellence studies have their limits. The questions may not accurately gauge public relations practices for all groups of communicators. Those questions certainly should not be used to detect more complex relationships, such as social accommodations by faith groups in a dynamic religious environment. Online surveys should not ask 142 questions. Even when respondents have an interest in the survey topic or sponsoring organization (Cook, Heath & Thompson, 2000)—the way RCC members do—they may find the online presentation too challenging or time-consuming. Based on the experience in this project, paper-and-pencil questionnaires are more likely to reduce break-off rates for long surveys.
Despite its limitations, this study has begun filling the void in scholarship on how faith groups use communication to manage relationships. By replicating parts of the work of Broom, Dozier, Grunig and their colleagues, the project has expanded the Excellence public relations body of knowledge to include a new area—religion communication.
Results from this study show that religion communicators are a distinct subgroup of U.S.
public relations practitioners. RCC members work primarily as communication technicians, not managers. That makes them different from public relations practitioners in 327 secular organizations studied by Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002). Furthermore, religion communicators understand public relations differently from the way the four Excellence models describe it.
Religion communicators do not know what their supervisors expect from them or their departments. Communicators overestimate their supervisors’ support for the press agentry/publicity and public information models of public relations. Communicators underestimate support for the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical models.
Furthermore, communicators rate their contributions to the work of their faith groups lower than their supervisors do. Faith group leaders say they want their communicators to be managers more than technicians. Specifically, top executives are looking for managers with qualities of expert prescribers and problem-solving facilitators. Religion communicators are not carrying out the tasks associated with those roles.