News Analysis: Where personal meets professional

With the Church of Scientology asking new PR recruits to demonstrate their allegiance to L Ron Hubbard's flock, Hannah Marriott asks whether those personally involved in a cause make superior press officers.

The Church of Scientology is planning to treble the size of its UK media team - from four to 12 staff - and wants all of its new recruits to be ‘believers' (PRWeek, 1 December).

Given its unconventional belief system, it is not surprising that the controversial faith is searching for advocates from within its ranks. But finding experienced PR executives from a pool of 123,000 UK members could prove challenging for CEO of external affairs Janet Kenyon-Laveau.

Positive discrimination
Of course, the Church of Scientology is not alone in its quest for PROs personally affected by a certain cause. The Catholic Communications Office in County Kildare, for example, specifies that staff must be ‘sensitive to the ethos and mission of the Catholic Church'. And many charities positively discriminate (see below).

But some argue that employing those with a more objective outlook is preferable to the evangelical approach. Suzanne Evans - former BBC religious affairs reporter and now creative director at Aquarius PR - says: ‘Scientologists need to clean up their image; they can't do this without an objective viewpoint.'

Organisations must also be aware of their legal requirements. Jo Ruffle, solicitor at law firm Shillings, says equality regulations do not apply where discrimination stems from the employer's religion. But she warns that an organisation could be found guilty of ‘indirect discrimination' if, for example, ‘it only recruited through Scientology publications, of if recruitment literature failed to ensure that non-Scientologists would be comfortable working for the church'. However, it would be able to ask for belief in Scientology as ‘a genuine and determining occupational requirement'.

PRWeek asked four organisations to explain how their employment policies work for them (below).

Janet Kenyon-Laveau, CEO of external affairs, Church of Scientology:
‘The church has found over the years that those people who have personal experiences and familiarity with the cause or organisation for which they work, understand the organisation and the issues more intimately.

‘We have found that their passion for our programmes, such as drug-awareness and rehabilitation, human-rights awareness and literacy, have given them an ability to communicate the issues with a personal conviction that might not have been the case had they not been Scientologists.

‘We've also found they generally get things done faster, because their understanding of the issues is more keen.

‘Although the church has for decades used its own members to handle comms, we have also, at times, retained outside agencies. Both have their place. The external view that agencies provide can be valuable in determining whether you are effectively getting your message across to those outside the organisation.'

Alexandra O'Dwyer, head of communications, Scope:
‘Scope decided in 2004 to introduce a policy whereby certain posts were reserved for disabled people. The aim was to increase the proportion of disabled Scope staff from three per cent to 20 per cent by the end of 2007 - which we have almost achieved.

‘This is not about tokenism: we only recruit people with the relevant skills (albeit making any reasonable adjustments they require).

‘One of the first reserved appointments was in our internal comms team - to ensure our communicators would better represent and understand the diversity of their audience.

‘Typically, the PR industry isn't very accessible to disabled people. We plan to reserve a post in our press office, and to set up a reserved volunteer position, to give disabled people an introduction to PR.

‘Scope must be led by the experiences of disabled people if we are to be credible. In charity PR, while personal experience is not a pre-requisite, that experience can be a competitive advantage.'

Dr Andrew McCulloch, CEO, The Mental Health Foundation:
‘Half of our staff have experienced, or currently live with, a mental illness. But we don't have a policy of only employing people with this experience.

‘But if a press officer has experienced what it is like to be depressed, or live with panic attacks, they'll be able to talk very knowledgeably with a journalist. Similarly, if a PRO feels passionately about a topic because of his or her mental illness, then that passion is more likely to engage the journalist and get us the result we want.

‘Personal experience of a mental illness can also give a PRO confidence when speaking to case studies, because they may be able to identify with them.

‘On the other hand, a PRO may take offence if a journalist who doesn't know much about mental health says something inappropriate. And there may be the rare occasion when a PRO is at risk of not being objective. But we're only human.

‘Generally, you want PROs who can keep their cool and give journalists the facts along with everything else that they might need for a story.'

Fazilet Hadi, group director of policy and advocacy, RNIB:
‘RNIB aims to increase the number of blind and partially sighted people it employs, and has a positive-action policy. Seventy-five per cent of people with sight-loss are unemployed, but this should not be a barrier to work.

‘For more than ten years, blind and partially sighted people have worked in RNIB's press office: it's important that blind and partially sighted people have a voice in the media. Our press officers who are blind or partially sighted are always professional and have excellent PR skills.

‘Also, having a spokesperson who has sight-loss lends credibility to issues and empowers people who find it difficult to live with sight-loss: it shows that disability shouldn't be a barrier.

‘RNIB also benefits from the individual's skills and experience of sight-loss. By sharing this, sighted colleagues better understand the issues they want the media to publicise.

‘All our press officers, no matter what their sight status, are passionate about the challenges that blind people face.'

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