by Joseph Peterson
I’ll never forget reading this line in a news article in the run up to the 2012 U.S. Election:
“The Mormon Church’s marketing makes the Catholic Church seem like…well…the Catholic Church.”
I’m paraphrasing here, but this punchy remark stayed with me because 1) I’ve been Mormon my whole life, and 2) I got my degree in (and I love) Public Relations. But the sentence is somewhat of a double-edged sword and has left me wondering why, exactly, is my church so sleek and polished with their public relations and marketing? I’m not talking about public relations in response to crisis, or smoothing over uncomfortable gaffes—although industry insiders in Utah all point to the LDS church as a prime example in all of these.
I’m talking about the kind of public relations that blurs the line with marketing, with brand building and with a social/digital forward shine that feels an awful lot like a political campaign, or like a big corporation that’s trying to reinvent itself for a younger demographic.
The Church launched an Easter initiative March 28, 2015 that looks a lot like a polished social media campaign cooked up in a hot ad agency. And even though it’s a basic rehash of previous hashtag campaigns, no doubt the current #BecauseHeLives initiative will reach millions and will become another social media feather in the cap for the Church’s own Bonneville Communications.
Now I’m not trying to stir a pot. I’m a card-carrying (literally), active, church-going, calling-holding, believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But I’m not going to participate in the #BecauseHeLives hashtag for three main reasons.
1. Discomfort. Perhaps I don’t fully know why, but I freely admit a level of discomfort when my religion is marketed as smoothly as car insurance. I question whether a religion should be promoted in the way potato-chip flavor contests, super bowls, political movements, or even activist causes should. My faith, and what I believe, are beliefs that are important to me. And I know in practice that Social Media is an effective way to spread important messages, but I can’t help feeling that a hashtag campaign is too trite of a delivery system of said message. It feels funny for me to reduce my spiritual thoughts to 140 characters that begin with this: #.
2. Worry. I worry about creating a social platform for well-meaning LDS to come across as spammy in-your-face zealots. I feel like my deeply held spiritual beliefs are not something I toss on a bandwagon of a social media campaign by packaging it in a cleverly worded sentence or two, slapping on a hashtag, and shoving it in front of people’s faces. I wonder if this is actually landing in an audience of potential converts, or if it’s just propagating group-think and confirmation bias among those in the “in” crowd.
3. Apprehension. I always tell my clients, what works with social media isn’t polish or pander, it’s authenticity. That isn’t to say that hashtag campaigns are bad. I love and employ them all the time. But they also seem to be the quickest way for a church to seem cheap by wrapping up an incredibly powerful idea about salvation into a three-word hashtag and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars producing and promoting content for that hashtag. This isn’t because I don’t think that’s good marketing. That’s great marketing! Especially if you are a nonprofit, or a brand. But if you are promoting a religion or trying to spread a belief? It just lands a little askew for me.
Church as Brand.
Perhaps it’s a brave new world viewing the modern church as a brand. I’ve written about this concept before, and I get it. I do social media marketing all day every day for a living. It’s nice to be able to create a campaign centered around a hashtag where you can measure engagement, response, and popularity.
But at what point when a religion, a belief system—albeit the administrative arm of a belief system—starts trending in behavior (as well as on Twitter) toward more of a focus on popularity? Is not the endeavor of a faith, rather, to set aside the cunning ways of the world and remain peculiar and unaffected by the fancy frills of new media? Is it to focus instead on its charge to care for the poor, administer to its believers, and take care of the flock through saving, healing doctrines taught by prophets as opposed to slapping a sign that says “He Is Here” on your photos and plunging them into the hashtag stream?
Storytelling is a buzzword in social marketing. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think churches should be absent from participating in social media. It’s a wonderful channel to reach people and to share stories. But when it starts to feel more like Coca-Cola and less like religion, I wonder if too much of a good thing, that is, high-end, top-notch digital communications, is looking beyond the mark.
I think in our pursuit of “likes” and engagement metrics, we also mustn’t lose site of the fact that we’re not about being popular as we are about being effective. And I do think there is a difference. I wonder if on the back-end, the number crunching and ROI metrics are zoomed in so far to how popular they are, that they fail to see how effectual they are.
See the Forest for the Trees
I guess part of a bigger question, should religions market themselves digitally as brands?
And if so, why do some do it more than others? And how is that different from simply using social channels to connect with an existing audience. As I’ve said, I think it’s great for causes and companies to engage in polished digital campaigns, but I wonder why it falls flat and seems cheap when a religion peddles that same territory.
I’d Like to Bear My Testimony
For the record, my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been both a boon and a blessing in my life. The way my faith ties me to an abiding belief in Christ, and a continual hope for the future is, in fact, my balm in Gilead. But “being a Mormon” in 2015 isn’t really analogous to my experience of being a believer of Christ through the lens of Mormon doctrine.
It’s a nuance that I think should be more purposefully explicit. Because I don’t view myself as a brand evangelist for cultural Mormonism I don’t feel the need to spread any messaging that comes through the chute cleverly packaged in a breezy hashtag. But, and here’s the rub, I also don’t feel the need to tell everyone how awesome Apple products are, even though I use them.
Put simply, if you want to talk about why my faith has changed me, I’m more than happy to have that conversation. Give me a call. Come over for dinner. Send me an email! It’s just, I don’t know, I can’t really tell you in a hashtag.