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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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Churches are not immune to the power of public opinion. They must participate in public debates on more issues. Also, they must effectively communicate their position and their principles. The president of the World Council of Churches in North America told members of that body, “Our biggest problem is our image.” Said President Cynthia Wedel, “When people don’t understand what we are doing, they resent the money their churches put in. (Cutlip & Center, 1978, p. 484) Nevertheless, the fifth edition repeated the 1952 wording about local church leaders shying away from public relations as something too modern or secular. Still, the 1978 treatment signaled increasing overall support for systematic two-way public relations.

Publications during this period from the Religion Public Relations Council (the RCC name from 1963 to 1998) reflected similar statements about church public relations to what Cutlip and Center were saying. In RPRC’s 1969 Handbook on Church Public

Relations, Executive Secretary Marvin Wilbur wrote:

Only a few years ago, many churches would have nothing to do with public relations. It was a rather dirty business. It was a “secular” matter about which it was not quite right for the church to be concerned. Or so they thought.

(Wilbur, 1969, p. 1) He noted that many top religious public relations practitioners now associated their work “with such churchly functions as evangelism (outreach), mission and education” (Wilbur, 1969, p. 1). Wilbur advocated a planned, two-way (flack) approach to church public relations.

In 1976, Charles De Vries, vice president for fraternal and public affairs at Lutheran Brotherhood, Minneapolis, associated public relations practices directly with local church ministry in Chapter 1 of the second handbook edition (renamed Religious Public Relations Handbook). Like Cutlip and Center, he pointed out that every group, including religious ones, could not escape having relationships with the public.

Your relationships with your publics may be good, bad or indifferent, but you do have them. No group can decide to have or not have public relations. Paying attention to these relationships, planning carefully to mould them so that they support and sustain the congregation and its purposes, and acting on these plans—that is what public relations is all about. … The normal workings of a congregation and public relations functions are so intertwined that one could say such activity is part of the ongoing program. If so, you’re practicing public relations. (De Vries, 1976, pp. 1-2) Maintaining those relationships involved planned persuasion and communication in a “process of securing and maintaining understanding and support,” De Vries said (p. 1).

Like Wilbur in the first edition, De Vries argued for a research-based, two-way (flack) approach to public relations.

In the council’s third handbook edition, published in 1982, Wilbur repeated that many church leaders did not think their congregations needed public relations programs.

Those leaders thought their churches were exempt from effective public relations rules or effective use of media. “Such thinking can’t be further from the truth,” Wilbur wrote. “… Mere possession of truth does not guarantee understanding or acceptance. If the church and synagogue are to stay vital forces, they must know how to interpret their message convincingly to the community” (Wilbur, 1982, p. 2). Wilbur defined public relations as “planned informing, seeking a desired understanding and action” (p. 1). He said public relations in the church involved two major functions: policymaking at the highest level and technical communication skills (Wilbur, 1982). Here Wilbur reflected contemporary academic research findings on manager and technician roles in public relations (Broom, 1982; Broom & Smith, 1979). Wilbur also combined the flack approach (policymaking) with the hack emphasis (technical communication skills).

Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985) expanded their discussion of religious public relations in their sixth edition and noted that churches were turning to marketing techniques to fill pews. Faith communities were researching audience desires, developing products and programs to meet those perceived needs, and promoting those offerings to target groups.

Because of increased demands society is putting upon the nation’s churches and the increased competition for commitment and dollars, spurred by radio and TV ministries, churches are employing practitioners in increasing numbers. Society’s demands and church competition come in an era in which church membership has flattened out and church attendance has declined slightly, thus posing an additional challenge for the practitioners in the religious community. (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 1985, p. 545) To meet the challenge, the sixth edition said, church practitioners were moving into broadcast programming and advertising to deliver their messages to target audiences (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 1985). Again, the sixth edition repeated the 1952 language about some local church leaders being suspicious of public relations. Nevertheless, the 1985 treatment showed growing support for systematic two-way (flack) public relations.

In the fourth RPRC handbook edition, published in 1988, Floyd Craig, a private public relations counsel who advised church groups, returned to De Vries’ theme: Public relations was essential to ministry.





Public relations for a congregation is about creating and maintaining a favorable impression. Of course, it is more than that, but it is a start!

Indeed, public relations is the skill of “putting things together.” It is the process of coordinating all communication methods and approaches together into a single planned effort to secure understanding and acceptance. (Craig, 1988, p. 2) Craig continued the trend in RPRC handbooks of advocating a planned two-way (flack) approach to church public relations.

The seventh and eighth editions of Cutlip, Center and Broom’s text (1994, 2000) reduced the space devoted to religious public relations and combined churches with other nonprofit organizations. Religion and spirituality appeared to be enjoying a revival in American society, the eighth edition said. Stories related to religion were constantly making news—sexual misconduct charges against Roman Catholic priests, scandals involving TV evangelists, deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

Organized religion has not escaped the vortex of change, crisis, and confrontation, so it has become top news. Whereas the church has long been comfortable using the media in the cause of religion, it is not experienced or comfortable in the spotlight of the evening news or tabloid expose. As a major force in society and social change, however, the church cannot avoid the spotlight. Increased media attention and a whole range of other relationship problems suggest an important and growing role for public relations in the church and synagogue. (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000, p. 550) Religious public relations practitioners faced unique challenges for at least four

reasons, the eighth edition said:

+ The intangible nature of many religious activities.

+ The sacred nature of many activities, which demands a dignified approach.

+ The problem of showing the practical worth of religious values.

+ The difficulty of finding which level to project ideas on so they will appeal to many (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000, p. 550).

The text in Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000) implied that churches had recognized and accepted the need for public relations.

In the fifth RPRC handbook edition, published in 1995 and now called How Shall They Hear? A Handbook for Religion Communicators, Douglas Cannon, then United Methodist Media Services director for Texas and New Mexico, also integrated public relations into normal church operations. He connected public relations to Christian witness.

In simple terms “public relations” refers to the way individuals or organizations handle their reputations. As such, we all have “public relations”—whether we think about it or not. Our reputations are based on what we do or don’t do, what we say or don’t say and what others say about us. A faith group’s reputation is based on—in Christian terms—its witness, the way its members live out, act upon and proclaim what they believe. (Cannon, 1995, p. 2-2) In the sixth handbook edition, published in 2000 by the renamed Religion Communicators Council, the discussion of public relations moved from the opening pages to Chapter 6 (“Marketing”). The chapter introduction called marketing “the process of effectively communicating information to target audiences” and noted that “many people associate marketing with selling or equate marketing interchangeably with advertising” (Bushkofsky, 2000, p. 86). The chapter defined public relations as a communication discipline that tells an organization’s story to different publics to foster goodwill and understanding (Bushkofsky, 2000). That definition, based simply on communication, presents public relations as a hack process. That is a major shift from the first five editions.

The seventh handbook edition, published in 2004 and re-titled Speaking Faith:

The Essential Handbook for Religion Communicators, backtracked somewhat from the 2000 definitional change. The “Marketing” section was retitled “Strategic Communication” and moved to Chapter 12. Donn James Tilson, associate professor of public relations at the University of Miami, repeated the communication-based definition of public relations from the sixth edition. Then he added, “‘Publics’ are the audiences you target to receive messages about your faith community. The core of public relations work

is relationship management” (Tilson, 2004, p. 85). He also said:

Communication that establishes and maintains quality relationships between the faith group and its audiences also can be persuasive or promotional in nature. The desire to be both relational and promotional need not be mutually exclusive, and may, in fact, enhance one another.

(Tilson, 2004, p. 83) In that way Tilson tried to reconcile the flack and hack functions in church public relations.

Council Names Reflect Debate The Religion Communicators Council’s various names since 1929 give more evidence of the continuing flack-vs.-hack debate. The organization has had four names during its life. They have reflected shifting opinions about how members described what they did. The name debate, especially following World War II, may have been one fruit of seeds planted during the flap over Propaganda in 1928.

The organization was chartered as the Religious Publicity Council. In 1929 advertising and publicity were often used interchangeably (Case, 1921; Reisner, 1913;

Stelzler, 1908). The move to establish the council came after two national interdenominational conferences on religious publicity, the first in March 1927, the second in March 1929 (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979; Manual, 1930). The group’s constitution said the council’s purpose was “to bring together religious publicity representatives for interchange of ideas and experiences, for conference on common problems and for such cooperative effort as may develop” (Manual, 1930, p. 7).

Membership was open “to those who are the officially appointed publicity representatives of religious organizations” (Manual, 1930, p. 7).

M.E. McIntosh, one of the organizers and editor in the calendar service department at the Board of Mission Cooperation for the Northern Baptist Convention, defined religious publicity as “any broadcast message, printed or spoken, that is about religions or religious organizations” (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 10). Of the 29 charter members, 19 had “publicity” in their titles. Four were editors, and the others were “executives” in evangelism, Christian education or missions. All were Protestant Christians (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979).

McIntosh appears to have launched the flack-vs.-hack debate in the council at the organizing meeting. “Publicity must be employed by religion,” he said, “because conditions have developed which make it the only possible means of obtaining an important audience.” Further, he advocated an approach to publicity work that would “systematize and make available to all, on lines parallel to those followed so successfully in the business schools and marketing departments of great universities, the psychology that must govern this field” (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 10). While the use of “publicity” echoed Lee, the references to psychology and universities appeared to put McIntosh in the Bernays flack camp. Besides emphasizing the use of psychology in planning public relations efforts, Bernays began teaching the first college course on public relations in 1922 at New York University (Cutlip, 1994; Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000).

During the next 17 years, journalist-turned-seminary student Lemuel Petersen reported, Protestant churches worked effectively “to establish good relations with the public and to get effective publicity into all media of communication” (Petersen, 1946, p.

8). Stoody, for example, who directed a news service that generated multiple stories and photos each day, was providing “the Methodist church with probably the best publicity that any Protestant denomination is getting today,” said Petersen (1946, p. 8). While Stoody was doing “strictly publicity and promotional work” (the hack approach), Petersen continued, “some church organizations are actually operating in the broader area of public relations” (the flack approach) (p. 8). Those groups include the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (forerunner of today’s National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.) and the Northern Baptist Convention (today’s American Baptist Church).

John Fortson, appointed the Federal Council’s public relations director in 1940, had worked with Bernays as well as reported for several news organizations. His background combined flack and hack orientations. He wrote How to Make Friends for Your Church: A Manual on Public Relations in 1943 (Petersen, 1946).

In 1946 Stanley Stuber, director of public relations for the Northern Baptist Convention and 1946 president of the Religion Publicity Council, won the first public relations award in religion ever given by the American Public Relations Association.



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