The recent spat over attempts by the Church of England to screen corporate adverts using the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas is just the latest manifestation of unease in contemporary Western society over the place of organised religion in public life.
With abuse scandals and problematic takes on modern social issues, religious institutions now struggle to regain the moral high ground. That makes it hard for them to promote their messages of brotherly love, faithfulness to God, peace between nations and being of service to the “poor, the needy, the widow and the orphan”, as the Hebrew Bible phrases it.
Religious groups, like all other organisations, have to communicate and even recruit. They need marketing, advertising and public relations just like any business. There is no contradiction between the judicious use of professional, corporate communication and the maintenance of high ethical standards of behaviour.
All the great religious leaders of history: Moses; Jesus; Buddha; Mohammed and their colleagues, were brilliant public speakers and communicators. That is how religion spread throughout the entire civilised world. Indeed the first known reference to an official spokesman is found in Exodus Chapter 4:
And he (Aaron) shall be thy (Moses) spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to you as a mouth.
But, evidently, our religious leaders are struggling. So here are five golden rules they should follow to produce a striking, inviting PR offer for a modern audience.
1. Don’t play God
Many religious organisations rely on grassroots, inside help. But to enter the world of PR, you really need to employ professionally qualified and experienced staff or consultants. Well-meaning amateurs, even though they may be bishops or cardinals, are not always the best spokesmen.
If senior clergy are required to appear on TV or radio they need media skills training first. The best option are PR experts who sympathise with the aims and objectives of the faith. That makes them more likely to understand nuances and arcane, internal divisions that might mystify an outsider.
Messages should always be simple and campaigns run on very limited objectives. If you can’t encapsulate a message in ten words or less, it’s too complicated. The Church of England opted for #justpray, which worked quite well. The aim should be to stick to language you’d use to reach an averagely bright 11-year old.
3. Pics or it doesn’t happen
The best campaigns use strong images, illustrations and graphics. We live in a post-textual world of in-your-face, heavily visual, youth orientated culture. Luckily for religious organisations, there is a wealth of symbolism on offer. The cross, the shield of David, the Hindu wheel of fate, are all easily recognisable logos.
And pictures of children and young people are vital for recruitment drives – they are, after all, the future. Reproducing medieval icons of tortured saints would perhaps be less successful.
4. Keep on the sunny side
Sell the sizzle not the sausage is a classic marketing aphorism. You wouldn’t catch a paint company selling its new emulsion by talking about its iron oxide and phenolic tung oil ingredients.
The same applies to religion. People want to hear about the benefits, not the obligations of a religious life. In 2009 researchers at the University of Virginia found truth in the adage: “The family that prays together stays together” – religious people live longer they said because they are happier and have better kinship and friendship networks. These are positives to be exploited.
Constancy is a virtue
Religions have existed for millennia by adapting to contemporary environments, societies and technologies but their core values and beliefs have always remained the same. Scripture of divine origin by definition cannot be altered to fit modern prejudices.
Keep the faith and people will respect you. The I’m a Mormon campaign, launched when the satirical play The Book of Mormon opened in London, is a good example of how this can work.
Most large, religious bodies now have a public relations department – either by choice or by force of circumstance. What is required is a continuous flow of positive news about the benefits of religious affiliation. “And what does the Lord require of you?” asks the prophet Micah. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. Good PR, not hype, is what the prophet would require.