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?

Share stories, earn support

People share their personal stories and become respected and supported. Those who just sell meet resistance.

Like many others, I’m a social being. I like people and I like their stories. For instance, last week I sat down with a 99-year-old gentleman for a story I wrote for Grand Rapids Magazine.  If I had just been doing my job, the interview could have lasted a couple hours at most. Instead, I spent four hours with Bill wandering through the past century from his perspective. He told me about growing up in southeastern Ohio, about launching a career in the middle of the Great Depression (of great interest to me, given that I’m starting a business in the middle of a great recession), about achieving business success by dealing with basic human nature.

You’ll have to read the magazine to get Bill’s story, although I have to say that I could have shared so much more than what space allowed.  Perhaps, after the story is published, I will share more about Bill.  By the way, Bill also had a program he was promoting, something he hopes others support.  But it’s an outgrowth of who he is. Sharing 99 years’ worth of experience earns you the right to share a position.

Social media allows people to share their stories — bit by bit or in larger chunks, depending on the person and their ability — or desire — to share.  By its very nature, social media allows ideas to spread from person-to-person and, in many cases, from one to many, which is why everyone with something to sell is looking to tap into social media. It’s also why social media is so important to public relations — it has so much potential to get your message out to your key audience. 

What often bothers me, however, are the blatant attempts to force a sales message into a conversation where it does not naturally belong.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  The conversation is about XYZ, and suddenly Joe Shmoe who you barely know is trying to sell you something totally unrelated.

Nothing wrong with Joe trying to sell his stuff, by the way.  He just needs to do it in conversations geared to that or start his own conversation and invite others to find out more.  It would also help if Joe earned the right to pitch his wares by first being an active and engaged member of a community.  When Joe is a respected member of that community, he might be surprised when others ask him what it is he has to sell.  Because they like and respect him, they want to support him. He was inviting without having to overtly and frequently state his invitation.

I am a consumer and have invited people who have excellent products to sell me into my home to show me. Typically it’s someone I already know and respect. I want to support them!  But I really don’t like it when someone I don’t know as well sticks his foot in the door and then attempts to shoulder his way through when I’ve clearly stated that I’m not interested. In some cases, I could be interested in what they have to sell, but they have to give me a little time to get to know them.

So, to those who are applying shoulder pressure through people’s social media experiences, please stop!  It wrecks the experience for everyone and it’s just not that effective.  Start with being social and friendly and inviting. Then you sill earn the right to eventually show me what you got to sell!