exclusive: Faith-based PR

Just days before Evangelic Christians were trumpeted as a major reason why President George W. Bush won re-election with a three million-vote advantage, The New York Times Magazine published an account of Christianity in the workplace.

Just days before Evangelic Christians were trumpeted as a major reason why President George W. Bush won re-election with a three million-vote advantage, The New York Times Magazine published an account of Christianity in the workplace.

The article cited major conglomerates and small businesses alike that incorporated their faith into their workplace. And the choice quote came from Os Hillman, a man the Times called, "the unofficial leader of the faith-at-work movement."

Hillman told the Times, "We teach men and women to see their work as not just where they collect a check, but actually as their calling in life."

In public relations, Christians are taking it as their calling in life just like any other industry.

"My faith is extremely important, and it is a part of who I am, as a being," says Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR.

Paul, who became a born-again Christian in 1997, says that development touched all parts of his life.

MGP, however, is not a Christian PR firm, and Paul takes on many secular clients, which include professional athletes, businesses and nonprofits. His Christian clients include Young Life, a global Christian organization; Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York; the City Convenant Coalition, and Bishop Harry R. Jackson, Jr., who Paul says was pushing moral values during the election season.

Paul says that the strategy for Christians is for faith to be a part of their business and their lives. He says that people who claim their faith is only something they think of on Sunday are not practicing true Christianity.

"But people have different approaches to letting that shine through," Paul says. Some clients, he continues, wish to pray or read a scripture with him before getting to business, which he is happy to oblige.

"I won't necessarily do that with a Wall Street firm, political leader, or professional athlete, but they will all know within a week of hiring me that my faith is an important part of my life," Paul says.

Paul says it is not his role or responsibility to preach to clients. He states that he is not attempting to proselytize, or induce someone to join his faith, and laughs when he recalls some secular clients calling him a "choirboy" when they first meet him.

"But guess what?" Paul asks. "It's the choirboy you want to help you when you're in the midst of hell."

Paul says that, as a Christian, he strives to be an example about truth, humility, accountably and transparency.

"Ironically this is very much a perfect fit towards what we should do in the business," Paul says.

One common mistake people make about his firm is that he won't take on an unethical client.

"If a client was unethical, and [wants to] come back to the truth, then I want to help them," Paul says. "If [he or she] is looking for someone to spin something, my firm is not the answer. I don't have a problem walking away from a situation that I know is wrong."

Mark DeMoss, president of the DeMoss Group, also says that some in the secular PR world might consider his firm, which is a Christian firm that only represents faith-based clients, might be less professional or unwilling to work with certain media, but contends that it is untrue.

He also contends that the firm pays its people well and provides excellent benefits, citing the Atlanta Business Chronicle's designation that DeMoss was an A+ workplace.

"When you're in a workplace of all like-minded people, there's a spirit that maybe doesn't exist in other workplaces," DeMoss says. "People settle conflict quite well and amicably, and pray for each other."

DeMoss was chartered in 1991 specifically to work with faith-based organizations and causes. The agency's 18 employees are all Christian, and the staff holds a staff meeting and time of prayer every Monday.

"At that time, there was almost no [other agencies] doing that," DeMoss says, conceding that he still doesn't know too many firms that are tailoring to faith-based clients.

When facing potential competition, DeMoss says the firm sometimes faces secular firms, but most of his competition comes from Christian organizations unwilling or unable to pay for outside representation.

"In cases where that's happened, it seems to be that we better understand their heart and their mission and purpose," DeMoss says.

The firm has resisted opportunities to represent secular corporations or entertainment entities.

"These are worthwhile things, but our view is that there are plenty of people representing hospitals and sports teams. There aren't plenty of people [focusing on] Christian organizations. We've intentionally stayed narrowly focused."

Anne Sharp, president of Sharp Concepts, started up her own firm this year, which, according to her website, is a Christian PR firm, but she thinks of herself as more a publicist who is a Christian. She also takes on secular clients, and also states adamantly that her job does not involve converting the masses.

When asked if there was a potential conflict of charging fees for promoting her faith, Sharp says that she does not feel like it is her duty to promote faith or God, in a literal sense. She adds that if she has clients in particular fields, like an apologist, who is an intellectual defender of the faith, or Christian ministries, she does feel like she promoting what she considers to be truth.

"It's all about a bringing a level of excellence to the table," Sharp says. "I may not be promoting God all the time, but I'm promoting excellence - the very nature of God - in my services."

Sharp says that she left a six-figure VP of marketing job to start up her own firm this year.

Sharp attributes her new firm to two things: what she wanted to find when she looked back on her life, and the fact that Christian entities could not afford six-figure budgets for promotions.

"When I look back over my life, I thought, would it really matter if I helped XYZ Corp. sell more widgets? Should I be using my talent towards something a little more valuable?" Sharp asks. "I felt strongly about the things I was doing, but I wanted something with greater value that was more meaningful in the scheme of things."

Sharp decided it was time to marry her faith with her expertise and passion for God.

"My sense is that if I make a third of what I made last year, I consider myself successful," Sharp says, though adds, "There will be a lot of eating PBJ and Top Ramen, but I do see a huge niche on the horizon."

Sharp concurs with DeMoss' statement that competition comes most from the potential client's hesitance.

"So far, [attracting clients] has been a situation where people realize they need to do something professionally, but are not sure if they're ready to make the next step."

Brad Abare, writer of the weblog, which analyzes mainstream advertising and marketing and offers advice to what the faith could do to market itself, decries people of faith's inability to clearly communicate what he calls "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

He concurs with Paul's opinion about letting faith dictate his actions, while not necessarily needing to preach.

"People of faith can be influential in their actions, their speech, and their life," Abare says in an e-mail interview. "Authentic Christians can spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ by living like Christ."

When asked about people of faith's ability to learn from the secular world, Abare says the thought of garnering ideas from the secular "i.e. sinful" world is a no-no in many Christian circles.

"But there's a difference between following sinful examples [like] Enron and following a morally neutral or ambiguous example [like] Apple, U2, [or] Target."

It is that reason that Abare and others started the website.

"If Target can make toothbrushes look cool, certainly Christians can present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that causes [others] to want to learn more," Abare says. "It's a tricky place to be, because some Christians will fear that you're following the world or selling out, but the fact remains that there are useful concepts out there worth exploring."

As the Christian message continues to gain momentum in the mainstream world, so do those pushing it. Gene Swindell, president of Creative Concepts International, which helped drive the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and was also involved in pushing out the Dan Rather memo story, is listed on the The International Coalition of Workplace Ministries (ICWM) member directory, which is run by Os Hillman.

In 2004, DeMoss says his firm will bill somewhere around $1.7 million in revenue, which is affected by a many of its clients being nonprofit.

He also says that coverage of religion in mainstream press has increased.

"When I started, there were only a handful of newspapers that had a beat writer that covered religion," DeMoss says, putting the number at 800 newspapers currently.

While political reporters have dwelled on the religious vote in the wake of the election, it's not entirely new news, DeMoss says.

"There may be an immediate uptick in attention, but what happened here is political reporters are now commenting on this religion factor, while religion reporters have known for some time," DeMoss says.

The communications opportunities continue. In 2005, Paul will support Jackson upon a national campaign, called the High Impact African American Church Coalition, which will help various Christian groups correspond and empower around moral issues. Paul says that both the White House and Congress are being kept in the loop.

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