Spotlight on faith-based communications

By Helen Hardwick

With another Pancake Day just gone there will no doubt have been numerous comms professionals up and down the country spending time in the preceding days devising exciting content and planning a flawless delivery. Everything from conversations about toppings – the nation’s favourites, sweet and savoury (gravy anyone?), to crepe v American, races and flip contests, Pancake Day provides the perfect opportunity to get creative with comms, have some fun and deepen connections with your organisation’s communities. Even my local train operator found a way to get in on the act, temporarily replacing its usual destination displays with St Pancake International.  
For those working in faith-based communications, Pancake Day provides similar opportunities.  For Christian contexts especially, Pancake Day - or Shrove Tuesday as it’s more accurately known – also signifies the start of Lent. Certainly, my local Cathedral’s social media channels were equally as busy and creative on Ash Wednesday with one post depicting the moment the Cathedral Precentor took to scaffolding to ‘ash’ two Stained Glass workers who were up there repairing a window.      
These examples highlight the role that faith practice and belief play as a key driver of content and stakeholder relations in faith-based communications, but which can also be barriers to clear and relatable communications to audiences that by and large have little knowledge or understanding of them. 

Faith-based organisations 
The scope and complexity of the faith-based sector is vast, broadly covering the religious institutions of the different faiths e.g. Christian, Islam, Judasm, Hinduism etc. and the enormous subset of denominations/branches within them, as well as faith-based charities that range from overseas aid charities, anti-poverty charities, human rights, education and training, and heritage/conservation charities.  
According to research by thinktank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) in 2016, 27% (49,881) of 187,495 registered charities in England and Wales are faith-based, with a combined income of £16.3bn, the majority of which deliver essential support/relief services, provide advocacy and awareness raising, research and education, as well as regeneration and revitalisation. 
Like other not-for-profit fields, faith organisations similarly value and depend on the outcomes which having an effective PR strategy affords; communicating in the right tone, raising brand awareness and credibility, preparing for crises, managing social media, supporting growth and building engagement.  
So, what are the key differences and considerations when communicating in the faith space?

Broad but nuanced  
Faith and ethics issues go beyond the professional, touching and spanning the whole of human life. The focus of other not-for-profit sectors I’ve worked in such as professional and regulatory bodies is unequivocal by comparison, whereas the range of issues and topics that even one faith organisation is required to respond to can be perplexingly broad. In one large Christian charity I worked for, the gamut of issues covered everything from gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, modern slavery, human sexuality, to euthanasia, religious freedom, financial inclusion, food poverty, unemployment and welfare. All required communications support in addition to the work generating media coverage and publicising news stories and events. And this isn’t atypical. 
While for some the breadth can be daunting, as a comms professional it’s an opportunity to develop knowledge on a whole heap of topics - and the network of journalists/press associated with them -teaching you to grasp issues quickly and efficiently.
Communicating such niche, generally unfamiliar concepts necessitates careful positioning and attention to every phrase but it’s also a chance to spend your days having conversations on issues that get to the very heart of human existence and social justice, enriching wider societal debate with an additional perspective. 

Message and method inextricably linked
A PR strategy that enables faith organisations and institutions to prepare and adapt to changing and sometimes hostile or quirky perceptions of them but at the same time communicate confidently is a requisite for building a respected reputation, without which central faith claims are lost. In other words, the means and mode must match the ethos and values of the organisation’s faith claims and beliefs if its message is to be believed and trusted. Of course, this is important as a matter of integrity but also because the high level of scrutiny and interest in faith organisations by the media can mean they are - often rightfully - held to a higher bar, often causing crisis communications to feature significantly.
Pressure to raise donations and build partnerships means that achieving the right balance can sometimes be a delicate matter and entail careful negotiation with fundraising and external engagement colleagues but this only underscores the reality that communications functions never work in isolation and our best work only comes about through collaboration. 

Pure professionalism 
Faith-based communications may be seen as the poor man’s choice of career to many, discussing issues which are alien to most. Yet I would argue that at their best such organisations demonstrate and define some of the finest attributes of the PR professional – thoughtful, respectful, compassionate, committed, courageous – qualities without which faith organisations fail to cut through. Society is richer for them and the different stories and way of life they portray, and they bring a much-needed reminder of our shared humanity.
These are some thoughts based on my experiences –  I would love to hear about yours!