the PR Effect and Preaching…

Pulpit of the Sint-Bavokerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands (taken by Mike Young, summer 2008)

I just started what is turning out to be a very interesting book by Hugh Heclo entitled On Thinking Institutionally. My interest was sparked by a review in the latest issue of The Christian Century as well as the water in which we’re currently swimming attempting to keep a denominational institution afloat in these challenging times.  I hope to write more about the book in later posts but there was an interesting point he made in explaining what he calls the PR Effect.

Heclo gives a “short list of some prevailing strategies used by today’s professionals in public communications”:

  • Stay on a simple message (rather than dealing with complex realities).
  • Appeal to emotions (rather than taking time to reason with the audience).
  • “Frame” issues to steer people toward the desired conclusion (rather than informing them about the substance of any given issue).
  • Project self-assurance (rather than admitting uncertainty or ignorance).
  • Counterattack or switch the subject (rather than trying to answer tough questions).
  • Avoid self-criticism (rather than trying to correct your errors).
  • Claim to have the whole answer (rather than admitting there is any independent expertise that is not on your side).
  • Above all, talk to win (rather than to get at the truth of things).

He then makes an interesting observation:

“So what does the PR effect have to do with institutional distrust?  To find the answer, we might return to the preceding short list and imagine two acquaintances.  One deals with you in the terms indicated at the beginning of each bullet and the other does so along the lines contained in the parentheses.  Once you realize you are the target of a sell-job, trust goes out the window.  It’s time to keep you hand on your wallet.  More than that, the rhetorical tricks, focus group-tested talking points, and slick strategies are a way of saying that you are not being taken seriously.”

I am still processing this but strangely enough my first thoughts went to preaching.  How has this philosophy of public communication impacted how we relate to people in the congregation?  I had a nice opportunity to preach for a World AIDS Day service last night.  My topic was “How are you spiritually healthy?”  I acknowledged how pretentious it would be for me to actually give a recipe for spiritual health…a “10 step” plan or something similar.  I received some nice comments following my talk.  But the one that probably meant the most was by someone who simply said, “I’m glad you let us think about that without answering the question.  I’m glad you let us know that you didn’t have the answer.”

I’m convinced that not only from the pulpit, but also in our “Christian/religious” communications with folk outside our particular faith tribe, our slide toward irrelevance has been greased by our attempts to sell faith.  Doris Bett says, “…faith is not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep our eyes open.”  Our sales pitch approach to faith has run its course.  I really don’t think people want answers.  I think what they want are authentic relationships so they can work out their salvation together.  They want to be able to keep their eyes open.  Too often what we provide is an opportunity to change the channel.