Public Relations: A Christian Calling?

In the last issue of The Outlook I wrote, “At what point does a faith that calls us to ‘seek the things that are above’ become irreconcilable with a vocational environment whose chief end is the things of this earth?” The following article, adapted from a class paper I wrote this past spring, attempts to provide a model for answering this question as it relates to one particular field of study: public relations. For readers in similar professions, I hope this article will encourage you to think carefully about the implications of the Christian worldview for PR. For readers in other walks of life, I hope this will serve as an example, a template of sorts, for integrating your faith with your own vocations.

Is public relations a form of engineering or ministry?

A fair first response might be, “Neither.” Most people familiar with the field of public relations (PR) would classify it as a communication profession. College students who major in PR spend most of their class time developing speaking, writing, and media skills. Even at a Christian university like mine, neither engineering classes, like physics, nor ministry classes, like biblical counseling, are typical course requirements for a PR major.

Why ask such an oddly specific question? I want to use this distinction to press into the implications of the Christian faith for PR. But in order to do that we must first establish a definition for this profession—in this case, not an easy task.

One thing is for sure: public relations engenders deep suspicion. One of my textbooks frankly admits, “It appears as if the public relations profession has a public relations problem.”1 According to many people, PR is simply spin and manipulation masquerading as “image management” or “publicity tactics.” Jacques Ellul, a Christian sociologist, viewed PR with similar skepticism as “a system of propaganda applied to all economic and human relations.”2

Personal experience tends to reinforce these unpleasant perceptions of PR. As one of my professors remarked, “We’ve always looked out for the car salesman.” Twenty-first-century businesses and governments are awash with manipulative messaging and deceptive persuasion. And when PR goes bad, the world knows. Just check the “Trending” bar of your Facebook feed, and you can probably dig up four or five national news stories generated by PR foibles in a single day!

Perspectives on Public Relations

While popular perceptions of public relations can offer us insight into the general contours of this profession, they fall short of identifying PR’s underlying perspective—worldview, if you will. For that, we’ll need to consult the views of PR’s scholars and practitioners themselves, and here I’d like to call your attention back to my original question.

Did you immediately discredit any definition of PR as a form of engineering? Edward Bernays, often considered the father of American public relations, called it “the engineering of consent.”3 As Calvin Troup notes, this approach assumes that ordinary citizens cannot reason and must be told what to think. Thus, the position of the PR practitioner becomes the seat of immense power: “As their superiors, PR professionals use their expertise to control the behavior and, presumably, the thoughts and motives of other human beings.”4

This is precisely what most modern PR has become: behavioral engineering that tries to dictate not just what we should think about, but what we should think.

Often the communication industry uses tactics of sensationalism and entertainment appeal to squelch public discourse rather than encourage it. The underlying goal is to foist an agenda on one’s audience and coerce them into a corresponding course of action.
With this definition in mind, it should be no surprise that Christians tend to approach PR with suspicion, even revulsion. Often they should. The Heidelberg Catechism expounds the ninth commandment as a mandate to “avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense anger” (Lord’s Day 43, Q&A 112). The Bible also clearly condemns selfish ambition (Phil. 2:3) and the love of money (1 Tim. 6:10). How can a believer justify entering a profession built on such a thick foundation of sin and deceit?

If this were the only possible definition of PR, Christians would do well to avoid careers in this field. But I’d like to call your attention to the alternative: an approach to PR akin to ministry.

Ed Lipscomb, one of the first presidents of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)—not a Christian organization—envisioned PR as “a new level of leadership midway between pavement and pulpit.” Lipscomb encouraged “the integration of spiritual principles and material progress” as an ethical and sustainable approach to public relations.5 Whatever Lipscomb’s own worldview may have been, he identified a deep-rooted need in the field of PR for ethics such as those preached in the church.

The Christian worldview provides a commitment to truth, an ethical framework, and an attitude of servanthood toward fellow men—values the PR profession desperately needs. The corrupted and falsehood­filled public relations industry all but cries out for humble, faithful, truth­seeking practitioners to recover it as an honorable profession. In short, PR needs Christians.

The case for Christian PR practitioners didn’t originate with Lipscomb. Augustine of Hippo beat him to this argument by at least
fifteen hundred years: “Since . . . the faculty of eloquence is available for both sides, and is of very great service in the enforcing either of wrong or right, why do not good men study to engage it on the side of truth, when bad men use it to obtain the triumph of wicked and worthless causes, and to further injustice and error?”6 Augustine urged Christian communicators to use integrity and sound rhetoric to call their audiences to the truth. Persuasion need not be a system of manipulative deceit. When truth is at stake, persuasion is a noble venture, a task for the Christian to undertake carefully but also joyfully. The rest of this article will attempt to outline some first steps toward a thoroughly Christian perspective on rhetoric, persuasion, and the field of public relations.

Principles of Public Relations

The foundation for Christian communication begins with the existence of a God who communicates. God reveals Himself to us both generally, by creation, and specifically, by His Word (Belgic Confession Art. 2). Unlike idols who “do not make a sound in their throat” (Ps. 115:7, ESV), the God Christians worship is a God who speaks. In the person of Jesus Christ “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” to convey the Father’s glory and grace (John 1:14). While Jesus is not now physically present on earth to address us verbally, He continues to speak to us through the written communication of the Bible. Even today God addresses His people directly in the weekly reading and preaching of His Word. This high regard for the authority and truth conveyed by the written Word of God is why many Christians, especially Reformed Christians, have historically emphasized faithful preaching as one of the primary marks of the true church. M. J. Bosma writes, “The recognizing of this word as the will of God for us distinguishes the Church from every other institution and organization.”7

The Christian worldview values communication not only as a divine attribute but also as a human one. Made in God’s image, mankind participates in his Creator’s ability to formulate and convey ideas. Unlike the rest of creation, Adam and Eve received direct communication from God after He formed them from the ground (Gen. 1:28–30). A holy dialogue lies at the heart of God’s relationship with His people, as He speaks through His Word and they respond through prayer (Phil. 4:6) and song (Eph. 5:19). Moreover, the Bible reveals that God appoints men and women as His agents to communicate truth to others. The call to communicate God’s truth explodes into the Great Commission for all believers: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). In the Heidelberg Catechism’s words, following Christ means first being “anointed to confess his name,” lending a powerful purpose to communication (Lord’s Day 12, Q&A 32). Not only is communication inherent to human nature, but also it is fundamental to the Christian’s identity.

Delving further into a Christian theory for communication (and specifically public relations), we can apply the Reformational vantage points of creation, fall, and redemption, as outlined by Albert Wolters in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview.

As already mentioned, the Christian doctrine of creation holds communication to be a unique aspect of personhood. Evolutionism, humanism, postmodernism—no other worldview endows communication with this level of significance. Belief in an originally good creation ascribes worth to all human beings (believers and unbelievers alike) as imagebearers of God, mandating that interaction with others must involve truthfulness, respect, and love.

In contrast, many secular models for public relations view man as a highly developed animal whose actions can be accurately predicted and coerced by behavioral modification. Without a clear doctrine of creation by a true and righteous God, the concept of personhood grows foggy, ethical codes are reduced to relativism, and deceitful PR tactics can be easily justified. Marvin Olasky identifies an adamant atheism behind Edward Bernays’s own theory of PR:

Some of Bernays’ predecessors trusted in an “invisible hand” that controlled not only marketplaces but journalistic activities; truth would emerge from the clash of opinions not by chance, but because truth corresponded to the nature of God who had created the world and sustained it. Bernays, however, saw what he called in our interview “a world without God” rapidly descending into social chaos. Therefore, he contended that social manipulation by public relations counselors was justified by the end of creating man-made gods who could assert subtle social control and prevent disaster.8

A second focal point for Christian communication concerns the Fall, a historic event of devastating significance—and one that began with a lie (Gen. 3:4). In the Fall, humans transgressed the law of God, subjecting themselves to futile thinking (Rom. 1:21), self­deception, and sin. Because of the Fall, the communication process itself has been corrupted, leading to misunderstanding, manipulation, broken relationships, and outright falsehood. Christian public relations must recognize the presence of deception and suffering in the world and combat the effects of the Fall by seeking to minister to people’s needs for the sake of Christ.

Finally, Christianity confesses the redemption of all things in Christ, including the field of communication. Because Jesus Christ is the incarnation of truth (John 14:6), it is possible to convey truth in interpersonal relationships, limitedly but authentically. Being a faithful communication professional is one way to fulfill the apostle Paul’s injunction: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Wolters powerfully summarizes the cosmic scope of redemption: “In the name of Christ, distortion must be opposed everywhere—in the kitchen and the bedroom, in city councils and corporate boardrooms, on the stage and on the air, in the classroom and in the workshop.”9 Bernays’s PR theory had turned this doctrine on its head, elevating PR practitioners to an almost messianic role rather than acknowledging the need for an external source of salvation. By comparison, the Christian worldview gives lasting purpose and direction to PR by subjecting it to Jesus the Messiah and His truth.

Personalizing Public Relations

What does a vision for Christian public relations look like in practical terms? My PR professor urges students entering the corporate PR field to look for opportunities to serve as the “conscience of the organization, pointing the organization to truth, authenticity, and transparency—terms that have been abused in our current world.” For the conscientious Christian, this may prove to be an uphill battle. Nevertheless, for believers who labor faithfully in this arena, God will provide more than enough grace and strength for each day, along with myriad opportunities to witness for Christ’s kingdom.

In summary, Christians need to reclaim the viability and integrity of the PR profession by treating it more like a ministry than a science. Indeed, the similarities between public relations and pastoral work are more profound than one might think. Both, at bottom, rely on the art of persuasion with integrity. Both, if approached properly, have the building of relationships as their primary goal. And, as with any profession, both are to be carried out for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. The integration of the Christian worldview with the field of public relations produces a profession grounded in truth, devoted to honoring others, and filled with the selfless love of Christ. That is a noble calling.

1. David W. Guth and Charles Marsh, Public Relations: A Values-Driven Approach, 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2011), 2.
2. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage, 1964), 373.
3. Edward L. Bernays, The Engineering of Consent (http://provokateur.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/The­Engineering-of-Consent.pdf).
4. Calvin Troup, “Ordinary People Can Reason,” Journal of Business Ethics 87.4 (2009), 444, emphasis original.
5. Quoted in Marvin N. Olasky, Corporate Public Relations: A New Historical Perspective (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987), 127.
6. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. J. F. Shaw (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2009), 123.
7. M. J. Bosma, Exposition of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Smitter Book Company, 1927), 237.
8. Olasky, Corporate Public Relations, 81.
9. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 73, emphasis original.

Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net

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