Media Relations: Church’s aim to share in new PR communion - The General Synod is addressing its communication problems by trying to introduce a centralised structure and encourage its members to sing from the same hymn sheet

Within days of launching a new communications strategy, the Church of England was the subject of yet more media debate last week when a memorandum written by the Archdeacon of Northolt urging the Church to adopt a spin doctor was leaked to a national newspaper.

Within days of launching a new communications strategy, the Church

of England was the subject of yet more media debate last week when a

memorandum written by the Archdeacon of Northolt urging the Church to

adopt a spin doctor was leaked to a national newspaper.



Views within the Church are divided over whether it should stick to

communicating the gospel, or try to compete for media attention and a

voice in national debate alongside political parties and large

corporations, with their centralised structures and messages and

considerable resources.



The architect of the Church’s PR drive, which has just been passed by

its governing body, the General Synod, is the Synod’s director of

communications, Rev Dr Bill Beaver. He wants the Church to lead on

debates, such as those on homosexuality and single parenthood, which

have in the past threatened to engulf it, rather than adopting a passive

or reactive role.



He says: ’We need to manage our debate intelligently. I am trying to

define the ring in which the debate is being held so we can take

people’s different views in rather than the debate being held on the

outside.’



Beaver hopes his plans to forge an inclusive, agenda-setting role for

the Church will avoid the need for errant members of the clergy to speak

out independently. He plans to appoint ’lead bishops’ - spokespeople on

issues like marriage and sexuality. He also aims to direct the press

towards good clean news.



This is not the first time the Church of England has sought to revamp

its image when faced with dwindling congregations and an increasingly

scandal-hungry media. Beaver’s predecessor, Rev Eric Shegog, attempted

to cement relations between parishes and the public and the higher

echelons of the Church by launching an in-house magazine, producing tape

recordings of the Synod’s meetings and an annual report of the Church’s

activities.



Yet the problems besetting the Church do not seem to have abated.



The solution, according to Pete Broadbent, the Archdeacon of Northolt,

is a for the Church to employ a Peter Mandelson-like figure: ’We get an

incredibly negative coverage in the press because we’re boring and

journalists go around the margins and find scandal.



’A spin doctor is needed to cultivate journalists and point them towards

the exciting things that are happening in the Church. Church people are

not good at explaining themselves and we live in a media world where we

are competing with other institutions,’ he comments.



Therein lies the nub of the Church’s communication problem: it cannot

compete with Government or business, at least partly because of a lack

of resources, a decentralised structure and a breadth of opinion which

do not make for effective communication.



Beaver’s annual PR budget is pounds 8,000, excluding salaries, a drop in

the ocean compared to the millions spent by Labour’s Millbank media

machine, and he has no control over what messages are issued at diocesan

or parish level, not least by loose cannon members of the clergy who

often end up as fodder to a frenzied media.



A wide-ranging internal reform programme, known as ’Working as One

Body’, which is now in the process of being approved by Parliament, may

go some way to easing the Church’s communication dilemmas. The measure

will unite its many national arms - the Church Commissioners, the

pensions board and the staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury - under a

single Archbishop’s Council which will have unprecedented power to

decide the Church’s priorities and how to fund them. One of those

priorities may be PR, but more importantly on a day-to-day level, the

reform will give people such as Beaver a more accessible subject to

communicate in the first place.



Having a united structure at national level will not necessarily result

in a unified Church view. Andrew Brown, media columnist on the Church

Times, stands at the opposite end of the communications debate to

Broadbent.



He likens Beaver’s role to a press officer for Parliament, a fictitious

and untenable position responsible for presenting a single united view

across party divides.



Brown says: ’The Church of England is handicapped by its breadth of

opinion.



The reason it gets such bad press is because of what people within the

Church say.



’They definitely shouldn’t have a spindoctor. They should be honest and

admit there are deep divisions, but they can’t because they are

pretending to be an organisation,’ he says.



Taking his argument further, he claims the Church’s PR operation should

limit itself to the basic non-controversial duty of communicating facts

and figures about the Church.



Fuelling the debate further, and offering a perfect illustration of the

Church divides which Brown sees as its presentational downfall, some

members of the Church believe communicating the gospel is what it is

best at, and what it should stick to.



Rob Marshall, former head of communications for the Diocese of London

and now an account director at PR agency 33rpm, believes that: ’the

Church should communicate the Good News and get over its internal

problems.’ But this ignores the point that, without the Church

participating effectively in national debates, the word stands little

chance of being spread.



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