Church in the media: a PR perspective

16 April, 2015 — 1 Comment

Have you thought much about how the church is presented in the media, particularly from the perspective of PR (Public Relations)?


In this post I draw your attention to an interesting article over at PR Week website where David Benady looks at what “four major religions are doing to keep themselves relevant to an increasingly secular and critical society.” He looks at The Church of England, Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism and how they have set themselves up (in the UK) to respond to the media.

Below I highlight a few points of particular interest to me from the article and I ask two questions that you might like to ponder around this issue of how the church is represented in the media. If this interests you I suspect you’ll find the original article called Spreading the word worth a read.

This interests me because data from my own PhD research showed that people who are not part of the church get a lot of their information and understanding about the church through what they see on TV, in newspapers, and online, both fiction (movies and television programmes) and non-fiction (news reports and documentaries).

Public relations plan or public relators?

The concept of PR got a hard time in the area of Communication Studies I was a student in. PR appeared to have the reputation of a shallow branding exercise about sales and marketing that manipulated the public or polished the truth through spin. A comment in this article puts aside the idea that the organisation of the church needs PR experts and considers the concept that everyone in an organisation (church in this case) is living out its values and purpose:

George Pitcher, who founded PR consultancy Luther Pendragon and is now an Anglican vicar, says the idea of having a PR function to communicate an organisation or company’s message, reputation or competitive advantage is “a very old model”. Modern communication requires everybody in an organisation to live out its values and purpose in their activities. These tend to be communicated to stakeholders through social media and customer relations. “If companies are unable to operate the old PR model, it is worth looking at the way religions have operated, because everybody in a faith is supposed to be a communicator of that faith,”

This is a great idea in theory. I think the best and worst PR for the church comes from its people and not any grand communication strategy.

Churchland has its own language

Religious language also has multiple dialects. People not privy to this might wonder what we’re on about.

Broadcaster Roger Bolton, a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which promotes religious programming, says journalists tend to be secular and lack religious literacy. But this is not helped by poor comms from religious groups. “Religious organisations have been slow to wake up to the need to communicate and find a way of speaking in terms that ordinary people can understand,” he says. He gives the example of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, an academic who struggled to use language that resonated with the media.

Questions to ponder

The church and Christians are often in the media, such as the example highlighted in my post last week about the episode of the television journalism programme Media Take which looked at Christianity in New Zealand. The PR Week article in question here shows some of the things selected Christians, Muslims and Jews are doing as they consider their approach to being in the media. When considering the communication of the church I find it useful to find ways of completing the communication loop between church and society, whether that be real or imagined. Here are are few questions that I might use in that process:

1) Imagine being a human who hasn’t been Christianised: if the media has been your main source of information about the church what would your understanding be?

2) Think of the church denomination or group your local church is part of: what might the dominant impression of this group be to those not part of it who have learnt about it through the media?

Image: Spreading the word article image from 2015

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  • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

    Hi Mike – this is Tony, I just wanted to draw you’re attention to a brilliant article I read in Time Magazine (Nov 23 edition) about the Charleston massacre. You would have to read it to know what I mean but it was very moving and I guess it falls within the parameters of Church and Media. All the best.