«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»
That was for his work as director of the United Church Canvass. The project was done by a coalition of one Jewish and 18 Protestant groups. The coalition launched a national advertising campaign, in cooperation with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, to promote participation in and support for churches and synagogues (Petersen, 1946). By combining advertising with publicity, the United Church Canvass appeared to have taken a flack, rather than hack, approach. Advertising campaigns after World War II were usually based on market or psychological research (Packard, 1957).
Winfred Elson, a Lutheran publicity executive since 1921 and another Religious Publicity Council organizer, distinguished for Peterson differences between church publicity, promotion and public relations. Publicity, Elson said, sought to create a favorable feeling about a church with the general public. Promotion sought prayers, financial contributions and volunteer service from church members. Public relations involved strategic planning in light of public opinion to direct promotion and publicity (Peterson, 1946). Those distinctions seemed to indicate that public relations concepts were moving toward “flacking” among senior church practitioners after World War II.
In 1949 the Religious Publicity Council became the National Religious Publicity Council. That change reflected the expanding membership of more than 300 in places beyond New York City but not a change in purpose. Many members, however, were dissatisfied with the continuing use of “publicity” in the title. At the 1951 annual meeting a new name, National Protestant Council on Public Relations, was suggested, but no action was taken. In response to continuing criticism of the organizational name, the council executive committee took a straw vote on possible changes. “Publicity is not inclusive enough of the varied promotional activities the members carry on,” one response said. Another said, “To me, ‘publicity’ means the working press, while ‘public relations’ means the promotional, talking, advertising ‘rah-rah’ boys” (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 11).
The lead article in the Autumn 1952 council newsletter discussed the relationship between public relations and evangelism. The piece advocated using every available medium to publish “good news” (Remember When, 1982, p. 6). The emphasis on communication, rather than planned actions, was a hack approach.
Both the council’s 1956 and 1957 annual meetings debated name changes. The 1957 assembly voted to maintain the National Religious Publicity Council title and not to consider the subject again for at least five years. In 1962 the name was again on the national convention agenda. Members voted that year for a change but directed the board of governors to determine just what council members did and then propose an appropriate designation. A subsequent survey showed that a majority of the council’s 600 members said their work was public relations administration. Therefore, the board recommended Religious Public Relations Council as the new name. It was adopted in 1963 (Dugan,
Nannes & Stross, 1979). The revised purposes for the renamed council were:
… to maintain high standards of religious public relations and communications; to develop fellowship among those engaged in public relations and related work for religious organizations; to develop professional prestige for those working in religious public relations and communications;
to present a united front and to speak with one voice on vital issues involving religious public relations and communication; to provide a clearinghouse for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of mutual problems, to pool information on media, contacts, new technology and research; to encourage young people to select as a career public relations and communications in the field of religion. (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979, p. 7) The 1963 change did not end the name discussion. The membership still did not provide a united front or speak with one voice concerning religious public relations practice. One reason may have been a changing membership profile. Until 1961 the council membership had been exclusively Protestant Christian. Starting in 1961 the council began offering associate memberships to Roman Catholics and Jews. In 1970 the council opened full membership to people of all religious faiths (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979). Roman Catholics, for instance, brought different traditions of media use and perspectives on truth from Protestants into the organization (Jelen, 1996). The additional diversity may have influenced the flack-vs.-hack perspective and, in turn, the name debate.
Nevertheless, while many senior church executives in RPRC saw their work as “public relations” during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of members seemed to consider themselves “religious journalists,” based on comments in trade and council publications. These religious journalists saw themselves as watchdogs on the church rather than advocates or promoters.
For example, James Lee Young, a member of the RPRC board of governors and Denver chapter, demonstrated his hack orientation when he resigned in June 1982 as editor of the Rocky Mountain Baptist Record because of reported “censorship.” Superiors reportedly told him not to print information about plans for a “closed” session of the Colorado Baptist Convention executive committee and to clear all stories about the panel with its chair. Young, who had edited the convention-owned weekly for five years, said he left his post because he did not think Baptist leaders should be telling him what to do.
He considered himself an independent journalist (RPRC People, 1982).
The Rev. James C. Suggs, founding president of RPRC’s Central Indiana Chapter in 1962, voiced disdain for “religious hucksterism” in the keynote address to the Indianapolis chapter’s silver anniversary celebration in 1987. “An old issue in religious communication that is nagging me (and at least some of you) is the important distinction between news and publicity. Sometimes our managers want us only to tell good news.
But the advice we might give our managers is that ‘telling it as it is’ is good advice” (Integrity in religious public relations stressed, 1987, p. 3).
Members like Young and Suggs grew more and more dissatisfied with “public relations” in the council name. They even appeared to join other church leaders in looking down on the function.
Marvin C. Wilbur, RPRC executive secretary from 1959 to 1986, acknowledged to a trade magazine in 1986 that nonpractitioners in the religious community often had a poor image of public relations. He said he expected acceptance to grow over time as more church leaders realized the value of what public relations people did for the church (Brice, 1986).
Stories and headlines in the RPRC Counselor, the organization’s quarterly newsletter, between 1979 and 1998 persistently referred “religious communicators,” “religious communications and public relations” and “religion communication” as well as to “PR.” As RPRC prepared to mark its golden anniversary during its 1979 national convention, Wilbur quoted a meeting organizer in an RPRC Counselor article as saying the council had been working in “religion communication for 50 years” (N.Y. Chapter hosts golden anniversary convention of RPRC, 1979, p. 1). Newsletter stories covered both flack and hack topics. Those topics included how to improve writing skills (hack), understanding human nature (flack), improving photography (hack), attitude research (flack), using video to tell stories (hack), meshing public relations and marketing (flack), dealing with reporters (hack), emergency planning (flack), postal regulations for publications (hack), use of market research (flack), improving news releases (hack), future public relations trends (flack), desktop publishing (hack), management skill development (flack) and how to conduct interviews (hack).
Newsletter pages between 1979 and 1998 showed that RPRC annual convention programs dealt with a wide range of topics, both flack and hack: future technological trends (hack—1979, 1981, 1983, 1993), ethics in journalism and public relations (flack— 1988, 1998), church-state issues (flack—1987, 1989), social trends affecting religion or communication (flack—1980, 1984, 1995, 1997), media effects on public opinion (flack—1982, 1985, 1990, 1991, 1996) and improving communication practices (hack— 1985, 1986, 1992, 1994). Professional development workshops at these meetings emphasized hack skills, such as writing, editing, publication design, computer use and video production. Major plenary speeches, usually given by public relations executives, academics, theologians, futurists or journalists, tended to cover flack topics, such as professionalism, management trends, keeping spiritually grounded, relationship building and dealing with controversies.
The 1982 convention theme (“Objectivity vs. Advocacy”) addressed the flack-vs.hacks question head on, calling it an “internal conflict so familiar to RPRC members” (Friedly, 1982, p. 1). Several presentations dealt with (1) the conflict with management over what is truth and what is “PR” and (2) the conflict with other religious and secular public relations people over what are appropriate public relations methods (Friedly, 1982, p. 1).
The council’s annual DeRose-Hinkhouse awards competition for members showed a strong hack influence. Of the contest’s six classes for judging, only one dealt with public relations campaigns. The others were print (newspapers, magazines, newsletters), other print media (advertising, brochures, poster and fliers, books), writing (news writing, feature writing, editorial writing), audiovisual (audio tapes, filmstrips, videotapes, slide presentations, disks, motion pictures, exhibits) and broadcast (radio programs, radio commercials, TV programs, TV commercials, cable TV programs) (Twenty-Six Named DeRose/Hinkhouse Award Winners, 1981; Methodists, Lutherans, Brethren take top awards, 1984; Baptists top award winner list, 1987; Members cited in DeRose-Hinkhouse Awards, 1995; And the Winners Are … DeRose-Hinkhouse Memorial Awards, 2005) Nevertheless, during the 1980s, the council actively worked with other professional public relations organizations to promote a flack approach to the discipline.
RPRC joined 10 other groups on the North American Public Relations Council in 1984 to draft a common code of public relations ethics (RPRC to help draft PR code of ethics, 1984). RPRC adopted that code in 1993 (Code of ethics supported, 1993). The code supplemented an eight-point statement of professional aims for Christian public relations personnel adopted in 1959 and revised in 1970 to remove explicit Christian references (Dugan, Nannes & Stross, 1979). The professional aims said council members were “servants of God dedicated to the task of making my faith more widely and more favorably known.” Their first priority was “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).
RPRC leaders advised the Public Relations Society of America on its 1982 “statement of public relations in today’s world” and attended the secular group’s national assembly (Eleven RPRCers at PRSA meeting, 1983; PRSA asks help of RPRC heads, 1983). PR Reporter, a weekly trade newsletter, praised the council’s third Religious Public Relations Handbook in 1982 as a “primer” covering the fundamentals of public relations. As a result of the coverage, more than 30 secular organizations, including AT&T, Texaco and several universities, ordered copies (Handbook given newsletter’s nod, 1982; New PR handbook given endorsement, 1982).
In 1984, Public Relations News, another weekly trade newsletter, named Wilbur, known as “Mr. RPRC” for his years of volunteer service as council executive secretary, one of the “40 Outstanding PR People in the World.” The newsletter recognized him as an expert in religious public relations who has been instrumental in developing purposes and professional aims for religious public relations personnel. The event marked the newsletter’s 40th anniversary (Wilbur one of world’s “top 40,” 1984). Besides his parttime work for RPRC, Wilbur served as assistant vice president for public relations for the United Presbyterian Foundation for 20 years.
In 1990 the council sponsored a satellite teleconference on congregational communications techniques. More than 400 people, mostly pastors, church secretaries and local church communications volunteers, watched the two-hour presentation at 18 downlink sites. Many called in to question the seven panelists. Those speakers covered seven topics—both flack and hack: planning and organizing local public relations efforts (flack), publication design (hack), media relations (hack), using computers to produce communication products (hack), person-to-person interaction (flack), special events planning (flack) and gaining access to broadcast and cable TV outlets (hack) (Public relations teleconference set for spring, 1989; Satellite teleconference showcases RPRC’s professionalism, both in P.R. and technology, 1990).
In 1983 the council revised its purpose statement, removing “to maintain high standards of religious public relations and communications” as its first goal and other statements about promoting a common voice on public relations issues and promoting the
prestige of religious public relations. The new purposes were: