Analysis: How to temper religious invective

With the Church set to oppose Deregulate's campaign to extend Sunday shopping hours, David Quainton asks how PR practitioners should go about their business in the face of passionate religious messages.

After a noisy ten-year campaign, which culminated in Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in the Commons, the Sunday Trading Act was passed in July 1994 – much to the chagrin of its religious opponents.

Now a lobby group called Deregulate – comprising many of the same stakeholders from the pre-1994 drive – is plotting an agency hire to help it completely deregulate Sunday trading (PRWeek, 16 June).

The Lord’s Day Observance Society, which along with shopworkers’ union Usdaw formed the most high-profile opposition to the 1994 act, tells PRWeek it plans to react ‘vociferously’ to Deregulate’s proposals. It also claims to have ‘many plans in store’ if a bill threatens to pass.

‘Usual rules don’t apply’
Deregulate would do well to take heed, because religious groups can form the most difficult obstacle to such campaigns.

‘The usual rules to communications don’t apply when dealing with religious groups,’ says one PR professional. ‘If the group has any integrity, because of its faith, it will stick to its guns. You can’t expect to win it over. Your aim is often to get to a position where you can shake hands with it and agree to disagree.’

Campaigning evangelists will write letters, call radio phone-in shows and lobby MPs to a degree that is hard to ignore. Such is their commitment to the cause, the noise they create may be disproportionate to the size of their group.

‘The knack is to ensure that their – inevitably minority – views do not monopolise the airwaves,’ says another PRO. ‘You’ve got to take any steps necessary to make sure a balanced view gets presented to the relevant audiences.’

According to Eloqui PR chief executive Chris Genasi, religious groups should be considered as NGOs.

‘They tend to have a black-and-white view of situations,’ he says. ‘And, like environmental groups, they tend not to be averse to crude PR stunts.’

His message is also one of not underestimating the strength of opposition that religious groups can offer.

‘Because of the strength of supporters’ faith, they can mobilise many people very quickly,’ Genasi says.

Lord’s Day Observance Society director John Roberts agrees. ‘We’re happy to hold fire on any campaigns for now,’ he reveals. ‘But when the time comes, we’ll be protesting en masse. There’s a depth of feeling about this issue and we’ve many supporters.’

Holy war
Religious groups – if respected – tend to give any argument a fair hearing. But one PRO says: ‘Do not expect to be able to change the mind of committed evangelists. They are convinced that they are right (and good) and that you are wrong (and bad).’

When Deregulate’s campaign revs up a gear, the topic of Sunday trading hours is likely to make headlines.

The Lord’s Day Observance Society will fight to ‘keep Sunday special’, while the Anglican Church says it will also wade in. But whereas Deregulate feels the need for agency support, Roberts is bullish about his own resources: ‘I’ve never used a PR agency – because we have the power to mobilise supporters in an instant.’

‘Religious groups are hugely committed’

Reputation Inc chairman Nigel Whittaker – campaigned for Sunday trading from 1984 to 1994
‘I worked on the original campaign to allow Sunday trading, which resulted in the 1994 Sunday Trading Act. It was 12 years’ work with fierce opposition from religious groups and the union Usdaw.

‘Religious groups are hugely committed and you must never underestimate the ferocity of their campaigning. They will fill up MPs’ inboxes with well-written letters and create the impression that they are speaking for the entirety of that MP’s constituency.

‘The same goes for lobbying local newspapers and broadcast media. In our campaign, we canvassed weekend shop workers and shoppers who wanted to be allowed to shop at weekends. These two groups are much less likely to write letters and campaign, but once we got them to understand the importance of their voice being heard, then at least some balance returned to the mailbags. I also made a point of attending church meetings to present our side of the argument.

‘I like to think we won the argument, although the votes at the end of each meeting never reflected that. But the editorial coverage normally came down on the side of the generally accepted view that at least two thirds of people wanted to be allowed to shop on a Sunday. The crucial thing is never to underestimate how organised and effective religious campaigners can be.’

‘Respect those who have God on their side’

Simon Walsh, account director at Flagship Consulting – launched the London Centre for Spirituality and has represented various religious groups
‘Dealing with religious opposition is like dealing with shareholders: they feel they have a stake in the issue and should be treated as such. You are inciting a war if you do not respect someone who feels he has God on his side.

‘Whether proactive or reactive, when dealing with religious groups you have to establish a professional response. Religious opposition is often in the minority, but every counter-argument should be considered. On the flip-side, representing a religious group does not protect you from religious opposition. Take, for example, the divisive issue of Peter Tatchell’s alleged outing of the Archbishop of York David Hope in 1995. There were elements of the Church hugely opposed to homosexuals within the clergy, but, despite their views, the subject still had to be addressed.

‘I think it’s also important to understand the motives for the opposition. Any development or innovation will have a number of stakeholders, but religious organisations can be high profile because they might approach the situation emotively. Having other stakeholders on-side with the organisation you represent is an effective way forward.

‘Above all, be prepared to lose a few battles. But keep your eye on the bigger picture and it won’t become a holy war.’

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