With crisis and scandal dogging religious organisations today, they struggle to regain the moral high ground. Those messages of brotherly love, faithfulness to God, peace between nations and being of service to the “poor, the needy, the widow and the orphan”, become lost in the din of negative media attention.
By Lennox Mhlanga
They are found to be either paralysed, stoic in response or choose to stick their head in the sand, which may have not been the intention of the churches concerned.
The 24/7 news cycle and the enduring glare of social media is unyielding in its demand for answers about scandals within the church. This inevitably means that they are obliged to employ crisis communication management.
The art and science of public relations are why many Fortune 500 companies and organisations spend millions of dollars working to get it right. Public relations (PR) help shape perception, projects the brand, image, and character of an organisation.
More importantly, it helps create a positive definition of what you are as an organisation, be it a global church, parish or congregation. It’s very costly to get it wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, the Zimbabwe Adventist Communicators Association (Zaca), an association of communicators who are members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA), was formed. What was significant was that this was done with the blessing of the local conferences, the union and the divisional and regional leadership.
For those of us in the PR profession, this was very commendable, given the pounding the church has endured in the media and secular space, and indeed, the glaringly misunderstood role of communication by many pastors.
It must have been divine intervention because, the global church has long accepted the import of religious PR and, indeed its secular version and the efficacy of its tools in propagating its mission. It wouldn’t be right for the local church to display a disinterested demeanour at the damage that was being done to its image.
As far back as 1960, Howard B. Weeks, secretary of the Public Relations Bureau of the General Conference of the SDA wrote the article What is church public relations? in the Ministry magazine, the international journal for pastors.
He said then that when the church considered the ways in which the message might have a greater impact on the public, it often thought more in terms of a massive volume of literature, efforts, broadcast and publicity.
“Yet we recognise that all the volume in the world will not penetrate even one mind whose approaches are barred by the barriers of suspicion, misunderstanding and prejudice. Such barriers resist any religious appeal whose source is unknown or poorly known,” he wrote then.
“Therefore, the Spirit of Prophecy writings abound in counsel to first ‘win the confidence of the people’, and to ‘do all we can to remove the prejudice that exists in the minds of many’,” he wrote.
Failing to do this through sound, consecrated public relations, inevitably led to a waste of large sums of money, material and energy in attacking “unneutralised fortifications”.
A basic definition of PR is that of seeking to create a mutually beneficial relationship between an organisation in this case the church, and its stakeholders, including those who are necessarily not its members.
It is the apparent lack of understanding of the SDA church, and what it stands for, that has led to the near distorted picture that is sometimes shared in the public domain.
The SDA church has, as part of its structure, communication directors. They basically work with three audiences or publics; the church workers, the church members and the community.
Generally, they only concentrate on the first two.
“It is important to hit the third one, but if I do not hit the first two then the third will be wasted. If we say to the community that ‘every Seventh-Day Adventist has a smile on their face’, but we meet solemn church members —then we are giving a wrong message,” admits a post by the European Adventist Communicators online.
“If we don’t communicate at all, people will think we are just weird.”
They accept that you can’t just create a good reputation: but you can influence it by actions, how well one does then and by how well the church communicates what it does.
Religious organisations constantly attract the attention of different kinds of people from all spheres of endeavour and diverse interests. These individuals form the critical mass from which the church seeks to win souls.
“Beyond the spiritual call, and the divine interactions, there is a rising need for the religious leader to fully understand the needs, aspirations and desires of his or her teeming public,” says Chika Ebuzor, an associate hub editor at Pulse Nigeria.
In his opinion piece, Beyond the spiritual call: Public relations and religious organisations, Chika asks how a shepherd will know the state of his or her flock if he does not take time to see how they are doing.
In this case, to properly understand if the message is impacting their lives, or if there needs to be an adjustment in the service outline or organisational structure to suit the members’ needs.
The issue, he advises, is that of the church properly tapping into the human resources available in its community, due to the dearth of the expertise required to tackle its communication deficit.
“Religious leaders need to find ways to generate data and/or research their congregation to properly understand their publics,” he says.
Which informs the principles by which Zaca was formed recently. Zaca places at the disposal of the SDA church and its officers, the knowledge and experience inherent in its members who are communicators, such as journalists and public relations practitioners.
Next week, we will show why the formation of Zaca is by no means an attempt to usurp the role of communication directors or the communication structures and offices that already exist inside the church.
But rather, that it seeks to offer the advice and counsel existing with church lay members who are respected and qualified communication professionals in the secular world.
l Lenox Mhlanga is a communication specialist for over 16 years and is an associate with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants and a member of the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations (ZIPR) Council. He has worked with the World Bank Group.
The views that are shared here are his own unless stated otherwise. Contacts: firstname.lastname@example.org WhatsApp: 0772 400 656