Sunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a relatively in-depth profile of Larry Ross, dubbed as possibly “the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” The premise of the article (which goes along the lines of “Why does Jesus Christ need a publicist?”) is thought-provoking, and one that I’m sure came easily to the author, Strawberry Saroyan (author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir).
In introducing the question, Saroyan compares Mother Teresa’s need for a lawyer with the need of Rick Warren, and the entire Kingdom of God, for the help of public relations. “Why does God need someone to sell him?”
That’s a good question, but is Ross really trying to sell God? How about selling the earthly creation that is the church? I know most reporters have this image of public relations officials, especially the type you can hire for a buck, as sellouts and willing to represent anyone at the price, but this is not always the case.
In the nearly 5,000 words devoted to the subject, Saroyan fails to consider that while Ross has been behind some of the biggest Christian-themed moneymakers in the last few years and has directed big-budget marketing campaigns, the most basic need of those he represents is someone with the time and ability to explain their message to journalists who often have a poor understanding of religion.
If successful Christian leaders, preachers and evangelists are to use the mass media to spread their message, modern PR is necessary for the job. One can argue that, as Christians, they should be humble and not seek the spotlight. However, drawing 30,000 members to a congregation is bound to attract media attention. The following paragraph is a great example of this angle:
But Ross seems to be mostly at peace with his role and described it to me one afternoon this way: after invoking a biblical story about Moses’ engagement in a lengthy battle for the children of Israel, he said: “Moses stood there on top of a cliff, and as long as he held up his arms, the children of Israel won. Well, after a while he got tired, so there were two men that came and held up Moses’ arms so they could win the battle. That’s my job — to hold up the arms of the man of God, like Billy Graham or Rick Warren, in the media.” But his eyes really lighted up when he moved onto another topic — the press reception Graham received during his New York crusade last June. “He ended up doing 15 interviews, including all the major talk shows,” Ross told me. “At the press conference itself we had 250 journalists.”
Saroyan seems to think that pastors should be unwittingly put before the media horde, free to stumble over explanations of ecclesiastical language and possible fire and brimstone. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:
Perhaps the most intensive training that Ross offers is his “media and spokesperson” sessions. These can last as long as two days and usually include several mock interviews, which are taped. Ross encourages his clients to engage the media, but he wants to prepare them for worst-case encounters, so he administers tough questioning. To loosen clients up, he shows them an old “Bob Newhart” episode in which a talk-show host suddenly turns on Newhart. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. He advises clients to avoid ecclesiastical language when addressing the mainstream (“Somebody talks about the Holy Ghost or the Army of God — that sounds like a revolution and it’s coming out of Iran,” says Lawrence Swicegood, who has worked for Ross and [Mark] DeMoss) and to use metaphors because they stick in people’s minds. Toward the end of a session, Ross looses a “bulldog” interrogator, a role played these days by Giles Hudson, a former writer for the Associated Press, who poses questions ranging from financial queries to “Do homosexuals go to hell?” “Obviously not,” Hudson says is a good response to this challenge. “Each person has their own relationship to Christ. People don’t just go to hell because you’re an alcoholic.” Sometimes Ross and Hudson add a separate, ambush interview. After taking a “break” from a session with Promise Keepers, Ross’s team confronted its president in the reception area, camera crew in tow.
So am I in favor of PR consultants walling off their clients and keeping them from the unfriendly media folks? No, not at all. I deal with those types in my day job. The goals Ross seems to have put before him in his job are not blocking information, but rather spreading information about Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of being a Christian. This message came through clearly in the article, and for that Saroyan deserves praise:
Ross takes pains to distance himself from the more unsavory associations with publicists. Once he playfully asked me, “So, where would a P.R. man fit on the social scale between used-car salesmen, lepers and incurable lepers?” But he also tries to serve his two masters fairly. When he was working with “The Early Show” at CBS during a Graham crusade in 2005, he was approached by “Good Morning America.” He recapped the incident for me: “Their ratings are significantly higher, but I said, ‘I have to tell you, we’re here with CBS, and we have to honor the fact.’ I feel dutybound. It’s not enough to do things right — we have to do the right thing.” Ross also said he is attuned to the spiritual needs of his colleagues in the media. On one occasion he spoke to a producer from a network newsmagazine for six hours, answering her personal questions about Christ. “We have people who come to the crusades to report the story and put down their pens and microphones and commit to God,” he said.
Finally, I believe Saroyan nailed it in explaining Ross’ “near-refusal to acknowledge anything other than the glowingly positive” as a tendency of Christians to not “want to let on to anything negative because they fear it will reflect badly on God.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. It’s one thing to want to keep the Church from being unfairly criticized in the media, but it’s another thing to attempt to cover up its spots and blemishes.