The PR of Evangelism

The public relations aspects of evangelism are really about understanding others’ needs.

Yesterday I sat down at a coffee shop on Grand Rapids’ west side (The Bitter End) to kill a few hours while Conner took his class in Mackinaw Harvest’s sound studios. A copy of USA Today was lying on a table next to me, so I checked it out and found an interesting Forum piece by Tom Krattenmaker titled “How to sell Christianity? Ask an atheist.”  Krattenmaker writes about “recovering evangelist” Jim Henderson, who learned from atheists all of the common practices of evangelicals that turn non-Christians off.

I don’t think that Henderson is less of an evangelical today. He just approaches evangelism differently.  He allows *who* he his and *how* he is in relationship to *you* to be the message.  He doesn’t come at you with a sales pitch. He comes to you with his hands open, palms up, being who he is and demonstrating a true interest in you, REGARDLESS of your response to him.  It doesn’t matter if you become a Christian or not, he will still be interested in you because, after all, that’s what God has called for Christians to do. Love others as you love yourself.

After intentionally talking with atheists, Henderson discovered all the things that Christians do that turn people off.  Things like “I’m right, you’re wrong” and referring to non-believers as “lost.”  I also loved Krattenmaker’s assertion that “if you want to have influence … you have to be willing to be influenced. … If not, would anyone want a conversation with you?”  It’s true in religion, politics, and just about every sphere of life: Don’t discount my thoughts, my ideas, my experience. I want to hear about yours, but you need to listen to mine, too.  That’s really important in Social Media, by the way. It’s OK to want your ideas to be heard, but to get there you’re going to need to listen and respond to the ideas and expriences of others, too.

Good public relations involves research and understanding your target audience, so it’s not much of a surprise to me that evangelicals, when considering a PR approach, need to do a better job of understanding their audiences and refining messages and approach. Too often organizations turn off their target audiences because their messages sounds too much like a sales job. This is true for Christians on a “mission” to convert non-believers and it’s true for sales companies looking to convert the general public into buying consumers.

I think the best sales approaches are the ones that don’t have to try to hard to get people to nod their assent.  Instead, people are attracted to the organization or the product because it solves a need in their life. The person or program representing that entity has made themselves available and open to the target audience. In the process, you might tell your story or you might create a lasting impression, but you do not hit them over the head with it in a way that makes their eyes glaze over.

The most effective examples of evangelization to me are those who strive to “be” the message. Here I am, an (oh so) imperfect man, saved by the grace of God alone, because he loves me and all of mankind. I fail Him all the time in my response to circumstances around me and the choices I make, but He does not fail me.  This gives me peace.  Now, tell me about you. What do you want to talk about?  I want to know you better and find out how I can help you! No strings attached.

Mother Teresa was a good example. I have no doubt that her mission also was to expand God’s kingdom and to witness unto others. But her approach was to minister to the needs of those in Calcutta. Of course, the needs there were so extreme and obvious, it was perhaps a more obvious approach than here in North America, where the needs of an otherwise healthy, well-off non-believer may lie below the surface.

Opinions about what public relations is will vary depending on who you talk to. For some, it’s the function that tries to get media mentions for brands or organizations. For others, its the party-planning function. Some think it’s speechwriting. Others think it’s “spinning” a bad situation good…convincing you the “rightness” of my point of view.  For me, what PR does is in the name. PR relates to publics. That means we know the publics and they know us. We can empathize with those publics and understand their needs. We have an open, two-way communication based on mutual respect. I want to introduce myself, get to know you, understand how I can help you, and let  you know when I need your help. 

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

PR and Social Media

PR is strategy; Social Media is tactic. To me, Social Media is best managed within the organization by PR.

I’ve had many conversations about PR and its use of social media.  It’s been discussed in various chats on Twitter as well as at conferences.  On a few occasions now I’ve heard people talk about the PR work that they do managing a client’s social media account. I do believe wholeheartedly that managing a social media account for an organization should be under the direction of the public relations discipline. 

The social media engagement, however, should not constitute an organization’s complete PR program.  Perhaps there are a few organizations out there that can get away with that, but to create a mutually beneficial experience for an organization and its target publics, more than tweeting will be necessary. Meanwhile, people who haven’t been trained in public relations and really don’t fully comprehend what PR is shouldn’t claim to fulfill an organization’s PR needs simply because they track friends and fans and followers in Facebook and Twitter.

Some of this was part of what Jenny Luth and I talked about at the Grand Rapids Social Media (GRSM) lunch event yesterday. A good group joined us for the excellent dialog about roles and responsibilities in social media and what constitutes effective PR for an organization.

Not Meant to be Alone

We were not meant to be alone in this world. We have ears to listen and a mouth to talk. Social media can help ensure that nobody suffers from loneliness.

People are not made to be alone. They are inherently social beings. That is my belief, anyway.  I know there are loners and hermits. Often, however, they are that way because their earlier attempts at being social went awry or, in the case of religious loners, it is to enhance their relationship with God. The Unabomber was alone, and look how that turned out!  Tom Hanks was alone in Castaway. But it wasn’t right! He made friends with a volleyball and then risked it all just to be reunited with others.

Being cast away, alone, separate from others. It’s not right. God made us with the ability to communicate so that we could, well, communicate! He gave us ears to listen to what others have to say.  He gave us a mouth with vocal chords so that we could share. He gave us tears  to sympathize. He gave us hands to hold.  Wow, I could keep going on forever with that sappiness, couldn’t I?  

Social media has obviously had a huge impact on how people communicate.  People who were otherwise social now are more social or perhaps social in different ways and with more people. I think the bigger change, however, is that some people who were otherwise reclusive, or at least less social, now have the ability to communicate with others in low-risk ways. I think there are some people active in social media who would not have thrived as well in the pre-Web 2.0 world.

I think of the guys at one party I went to in college who were watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail in the living room, reciting each line, singing each song. When the movie was shut off halfway through, they looked up, blinking, not quite sure how to interact with others in the room.  I think in today’s Web 2.0 world they’d be chatting it up with like-minded Holy Grailians, making plans for a tweetup in NYC to watch Spamalot on Broadway.

More importantly, there are people who really have led miserable lives who can now find others who will talk to them and help. People who don’t know where else to go with their problems now find listening ears (provided they search … some on Twitter won’t follow you back unless you have a blue-and-white ‘verified’ mark on your profile pic). People who might find it hard to converse face-t0-face might actually experience what social interaction is all about and, perhaps, find ways of translating that into their real lives.

I think there are fascinating studies to be conducted, if they’ve not already been done, to see what social media’s affect on rates of reclusivity.  There are many human conditions that impact quality of life, and I think that social media can help with one of them: being alone. We were not meant to be alone, and now there are more ways to ensure that we can move out of that condition and into a full life complete with social interaction.