When your client is God - What is it like to work in heavenly promotion, and who’s doing it? Virginia Randall talks to the pros of religious PR about their business, their faith and their calling

Religion and public relations go way back. Moses pioneered the concept of the top 10 list (a staple of press releases and late night TV); a PRWeek survey of professionals named Jesus the greatest communicator of all time.

Religion and public relations go way back. Moses pioneered the concept of the top 10 list (a staple of press releases and late night TV); a PRWeek survey of professionals named Jesus the greatest communicator of all time.

Religion and public relations go way back. Moses pioneered the

concept of the top 10 list (a staple of press releases and late night

TV); a PRWeek survey of professionals named Jesus the greatest

communicator of all time.



And the first trade association for religion PR pros, the Religious

Public Relations Council (now the Religion Communicators Council), was

created in 1929 - almost 20 years before the PRSA.



There’s no way to estimate the size of God’s share of the PR business in

dollar value. But it’s a sector that appears to be growing. The public

is becoming more interested in religion (evidenced by recent newsweekly

covers and the Republican presidential race) and religious groups and

denominations are becoming more aware of the value of PR. Still, PR pros

who work in this area face challenges in explaining what they do and in

dealing with tight budgets. But then this is one area of PR in which

people aren’t really in it for the money.



’I’m not selling products, I’m explaining an experience,’ says Jeaneane

Merkel, current president of the religious communicators group and

director of communications for two Catholic groups (the Conference of

Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women

Religious).



Acknowledging the strong evangelical component in his work, Bob Reccord,

president and CEO of the North American Mission Board for the Southern

Baptist Life Convention, says, ’If you’re doing no more than marketing

’a product,’ you’ve gotten into business, not a Christian mission.’

Reccord left a career promoting products to the automotive and aircraft

industries to enter his current work.



In some senses, these PR pros’ work is similar to that of their secular

colleagues. They promote their clients, write press releases and talk to

reporters. The Religion Communicators Council publishes How Shall They

Hear: A Handbook for Religion Communicators, which reads like any basic

PR textbook (with exceptions such as the chapter on interfaith

communications).



One difference with religion PR pros is that they tend to work in a

cloistered world. They are mostly in-house communicators - ’corporate’

doesn’t seem the right word - and they rarely use outside agencies. When

agencies are hired, they are chosen through word-of-mouth referrals. Two

Christian firms, The DeMoss Group in Atlanta and A. Larry Ross &

Associates in Carrollton, TX (see sidebar), in their combined 28 years

of business, have responded to an RFP or sent in a business pitch a

total of three times.



In addition, these religion PR pros can rely on countless volunteers who

donate their time to work on church bulletins and newsletters, promote

local initiatives and charity drives and pitch in at major events, such

as the Pope’s visit to Central Park a few years ago.



On the other hand, enough agencies are doing pro bono work for Christian

ministries for one owner of a Christian PR agency to consider them part

of his competitive landscape. ’My competition is not other agencies,’

says Mark DeMoss of The DeMoss Group. ’It’s pro bono agencies and the

choice by ministries not to do PR at all.’



For secular PR agencies, the crossroads of religion and politics can

bring trouble. In 1990, Hill & Knowlton famously heaped on itself a

torrent of criticism (and a number of resignations) for directing an

anti-abortion campaign sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic

Bishops. Another agency, Burson-Marsteller, had turned down the

account.



One development keeping religion PR pros busy is an increased interest

in spirituality and religion coverage. Even Super Bowl coverage this

year included a look at religion in the locker room and on the field.

Shirley Struchen, a producer at United Methodist Communications, notes

that registrations for the Religion Communicators Council’s awards for

values-conscious secular programming are up 20% over last year; NBC’s

Dateline alone submitted some 18 entries. The awards will be given out

at the group’s annual conference starting March 29 in Chicago - this

year’s theme is ’Faith Stories in a Changing World.’ (The council’s

membership has increased to 650 from 500 just a few years ago and

includes Hare Krishna, Baha’i and other non-Western faiths.)





Pitching the mainstream



’My successful mainstream pitches occur when they intersect with other

religions,’ says Emily Grotta, director of communications for the Union

of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform Movement) and an alum of

Burson-Marsteller and Howard Rubenstein. ’So, it’s not that more people

are joining a reform congregation, but that more people of many

religions are joining religious congregations in general.’



New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr says he’s seen coverage

move beyond the once-a-week Saturday religion page. Niebuhr can get 10

or more calls a day proposing stories, not including faxes; pitches

range from events to speakers to new books. He says he has almost no

complaints about PR people at the denominational level. ’They all know

what’s news and they don’t push too hard. There’s a huge diversity of

people - people who give interesting answers to questions, unlike

politicians who go into a groove and give the same answer over and over

again.’



One attempt to bring an even higher profile to religion is The Templeton

Prize for Progress in Religion. Established in 1972 by investor Sir John

Templeton, it is the world’s largest single cash award - currently worth

more than dollars 1 million - given to a living person who displays

originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God or

spirituality. Recipients have included first winner Mother Theresa,

Chuck Colson and Rev. Billy Graham. ’People don’t see religion as a

living, moving thing,’ says Don Lehr of New York PR agency Nolan/Lehr

Group, who has represented the prize for nine years. ’We want to move

religion off the religion pages and onto the news pages.’



Indeed, religious denominations appear to be seeking out PR more than in

the past. ’The most significant change I’ve seen in religious PR is that

more organizations are aware of the value of PR,’ DeMoss says. ’A large

Christian ministry might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on daily

radio programs and direct mail and won’t think to spend anything on PR

to place a story in a mainstream publication.’



Funding depends on the generosity of the faithful, either through direct

donations or through dues specifically earmarked for communications -

thus making such collections a referendum on the success of the

communications plan. Most of those surveyed say their budgets are

increasing slightly as the scope of their jobs increases exponentially.

Amounts range from less than dollars 100,000 to about dollars 600,000 -

and these are for national offices of groups that compose the

Judeo-Christian mainstream. (The largest charitable group, The Salvation

Army, raised dollars 2 billion last year and spent about dollars 250,000

on PR.)



Joe Zwilling, communications director of the Catholic Archdiocese of New

York, says that when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated

program content during the Reagan administration, it made the budgets

even tighter. Broadcasters didn’t need to give free airtime to religious

programmers. ’We had to be more creative,’ says Zwilling. ’We have to

think like professional broadcasters, in terms of audiences and how to

best reach them.’ (Zwilling’s budget is dollars 450,000 - dollars

150,000 of which is for programming.)



’My biggest challenge is getting everything done with the resources I’ve

got,’ says the UAHC’s Grotta. Grotta and her staff of eight - with a

dollars 600,000 budget, dollars 210,000 of which is for production costs

- work with member congregations organizing retreats, creating

publications and programming, enhancing online forums and producing

study guides and materials for the ’Values Initiative’ created by the

union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to illustrate the religious

seriousness of Reform Jews. And this is all in addition to doing media

relations for Jewish and general media. ’I try to schmooze the press

twice a week,’ Grotta says. ’That doesn’t always happen.’



Religion PR pros must also combat the accusation that it is immoral to

divert funds from a religion’s main mission. ’The word ’marketing’ is

abhorred in our communication workshops (for the Methodist community) -

they prefer ’evangelizing,’’ says Struchen of the United Methodist

Church’s national communications operation, which has 150 employees.



A recurring motif among religion PR pros is the need to educate

reporters about their beat. ’I’ve had reporters ask me ’Do you really

believe this stuff?’’ says Larry Ross. ’A lot of the time we get the

rookie reporter or the general assignment reporter,’ says Zwilling of

the New York Catholic Archdiocese.





Educating the media



However, Zwilling was able to use his experience educating reporters to

make the coverage of John Paul II’s mass in Central Park in 1995 a

success, credentialing 500 media to cover a mass for 150,000. The focus

of the event and the coverage was the result of understanding how to

educate the media and meet their needs and two years of planning.



’When the Pope came to the US in ’87 and ’93 for World Youth Day, the

media was in search of a story,’ says Zwilling. ’He’d been here before

and he wasn’t new. So the media focused on the dissidents within and

outside the faith. No one was denying their right to stand outside the

park with signs, but you got the sense by the coverage that they were

there in equal numbers (to the faithful).’



This time, Zwilling and his peers developed a plan focusing on the

Pope’s message, including themes, angles and an extensive list of

sources. ’We had a list of Catholic experts on a lot of topics; we had a

guest available to talk about why the church does this or that. We were

able to give the media the full picture of what we wanted to do.’ The

lists included parishes willing to let a reporter tag along at the mass

(about 25 reporters accompanied mass attendees). ’We didn’t prescreen

anybody and we didn’t media train anybody,’ Zwilling says.



The event was staffed by PR pros from Zwilling’s office and other

offices of other Catholic groups and volunteer professionals. Stanton

Communications helped with credentialing and reviewing pool assignments

for reporters.



By the time the event was over, it was front-page news in most New York

and national newspapers, covered by CNN and carried live by New York

broadcast media, and fed to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and

elsewhere. ’We knew it was the high point of his trip when it was the

lead story in L’Observatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper,’ says

Zwilling.



Religion PR pros face a continuing challenge with those who equate

religious views with political views. Zwilling observes that ’reporters

cover (John Cardinal O’Connor) like he’s Rudy Guiliani, with a political

subtext to his remarks, conservative versus liberal, without a spiritual

dimension.



O’Connor is routinely portrayed as a conservative in New York anytime he

speaks of the sacredness of human life. He is shown as making a

political statement instead of a religious one.’



DeMoss says a major achievement in representing the Promise Keepers, the

Christian men’s group, has been deflecting accusations that the group

was essentially political. ’Besides the size of the crowd, October 4,

1997 (the day of its mass meeting in Washington, DC) was the greatest

day because that organization and that event stayed on message,’ he

says.



’And there were a lot of outside forces trying to claim it was really a

political organization in disguise. A newsmagazine listed the National

Organization for Women as a loser of the week for their attacks.’





WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?: PR AGENCIES FOR CHRIST



Agency: A. Larry Ross & Associates



Location: Carrollton, TX



Head of agency: Larry Ross



’The church is one of the single largest special interest groups in the

nation,’ says Larry Ross, an alum of Creamer Dickson Basford in New York

City (one account was Seagram’s, which he ’didn’t relish,’ he

admits).



Ross says his boss told him he was committing ’career suicide’ to

concentrate on Christian clients in 1981. While he won’t reveal billings

or a client list, his 14-member agency represents religious groups and

businesses interested in reaching the Christian market.



One such company was Dreamworks Studios when it released Prince of Egypt

in December 1998. ’Dreamworks recognized the importance of the Christian

community while Prince of Egypt was in production,’ says Ross, noting

that the studio consulted with 600 religious leaders at that time. The

goal of the 18-month project, Ross says, was to position the movie as

faithful and credible to the Bible (not easy given some Christian

communities’ perception of Hollywood) while at the same time promoting

it as an entertainment epic that kids would enjoy.



The goal was to reinforce the credibility of the process to the

audience.



’We went to ministries for endorsement of the film, using our network,’

Ross says. ’We also put together press junkets for long-lead and

short-lead Christian media to Hollywood. This was all new to them.’



Ross uses the techniques he learned in agency life to place positive

stories about religion in secular media, such as a recent front-page

story in The Wall Street Journal about Bishop T.D. Jakes, who has the

fastest-growing church in America, the nondenominational Potter’s House

in Dallas.



’Our job is to tell the story of ministries in a cultural context with

news value,’ says Ross. ’I’m aware that I’m representing the Kingdom of

God as well as my clients.’





Agency: The DeMoss Group



Location: Atlanta



Head of agency: Mark DeMoss



DeMoss began his PR career with Jerry Falwell under the title

administrative assistant. His increasing interest in PR and the

religious niche led him to launch the DeMoss Group in 1991, with Falwell

as his first client.



Other clients include the Christian ministries of the Rev. Franklin

Graham (son of Rev. Billy Graham) and Promise Keepers, the Christian

men’s group.



His staff of 10 PR pros work on 18 clients, some of whom have been with

the agency since its inception.



’We’re trying to communicate matters of faith to large audiences,’

DeMoss says. ’And I think the biggest PR challenge we face is bad

thinking or no thinking. We’re not dependent on routine or systems or

news releases.’



DeMoss mentions some of his agency’s landmark promotional successes: the

Promise Keepers’ ’Stand in the Gap’ meeting at the Mall in Washington,

DC in 1997; the October 1999 summit meeting between Jerry Falwell and

200 gays and lesbians at his church in Lynchburg, VA for an antiviolence

forum; and ’Operation Christmas Child,’ a campaign of Samaritan’s Purse,

a group launched by Rev. Franklin Graham, which last year sent 3.3

million shoeboxes filled with toys, toiletries, treats and some

spiritual content to Bosnian children (the Today show accompanied the

delivery).



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