The (Olivia) pope of the religious right

The (Olivia) pope of the religious right January 19, 2019

Between Liberty University’s CIO and Harvest Bible Church, this week would seem like a busy time for the religious right’s top “crisis management” PR guy. But it seems the religious right is going to need to find a new fixer:

After nearly 30 years, a public relations agency that has acted as a powerful gatekeeper for some of the most prominent Christian faith-based organizations is closing its doors.

Mark DeMoss, 56, announced in a letter to friends Tuesday (Jan. 15) he is closing his eponymous, Atlanta-based firm — which describes itself as the nation’s largest PR agency serving faith-based organizations and causes — at the end of March.

DeMoss has represented such institutions as the Museum of the Bible, Hillsong, campus ministry Cru, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Graham’s son Franklin. The firm also has been connected with two influential megachurches — Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and Mars Hill Church in Seattle — helping both to navigate crises involving their prominent pastors.

That career, DeMoss wrote, has given him an “all-access pass to so much evangelical history.”

DeMoss could have said, “so much evangelical history … that we’ve made sure the public will never hear about.” This is a guy who might well have a catch-and-kill vault that would make David Pecker jealous.

DeMoss is a smooth pro, though so, in this interview, he reassures his former clients that their secrets will be safe with him, even in retirement:

I’ve always been involved in crisis management and crisis communications. The older I got, the more I was spending my time that way. A lot of it is known, because I would be quoted as a spokesperson. A majority of it, people don’t know about because I stayed in the background. One of the reasons I won’t write a book about my years in PR is that the only way it would be an interesting book would be to tell stories using names, and I’m not going to do that.

DeMoss can afford to retire because the “crisis management and crisis communications” biz pays well. It kind of has to. The only way to do that job is to get the big-shots in the executive suites of big corporations (or, in DeMoss’ case, big churches and ministries) to go along with the kind of behavior that big shots generally aren’t inclined to agree to: apologizing, admitting mistakes, creating an impression of humility and contrition. It’s a lot easier to get them to cooperate with that sort of thing if you can approach them looking and dressing and smelling like the kind of big-shot executive they’re willing to regard as a peer. And it helps if you can back that up by telling them, “Look, your company/ministry is paying me a lot of money to handle this, so you need to listen to me and let me do my job.”

We could also argue that DeMoss — like everyone else in this field — was horrifically over-paid. The business of “crisis management and crisis communications” follows such a consistent, well-established template that anybody ought to be able to follow the formula without hiring some top-dollar PR guy to recite it for you.

I’d almost say that this formula was so simple that anyone could do this job, except that’s not really true. I couldn’t and you probably couldn’t either. I mean, consider the details of the kind of “crisis” that, for example, DeMoss client Hillsong needed him to deal with. You probably wouldn’t have been willing to jump in to defend the public reputation of Hillsong after that. Nor, I’m guessing, would you have been eager to sign on to rehabilitate the reputation of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church.

I suppose, from a certain angle, that when I think about what kind of money it would take to get me to defend a client-list like that, I start to think of DeMoss as under-paid.

The Hillsong example shows that DeMoss was pretty good at his job. Mention the name of that church and most people don’t immediately think “Oh, isn’t that the church that was founded by the Australian guy who raped all those children and is now run by his son who covered up his crimes for years?” Instead they think of the “worship” albums charting on Billboard, or of the glamorous celebrities who attend the church’s LA branch. The son of the rapist who was condemned by a royal commission for his role in the cover-up is now a big-selling brand-name in “church leadership.”  I don’t know if DeMoss was involved in getting Hillsong Worship that gig on the Today show, but if he was, the guy was earning whatever they paid him.

But then DeMoss was apparently also the “crisis management” guy for Willow Creek, and I don’t think anyone would point to their halting, stumbling, herky-jerky handling of their recent scandal as a model of masterful public relations. Maybe they just weren’t listening to his advice.

The true measure of DeMoss’ skill, though, isn’t how he handled the many scandals we’ve heard about. His greatest value to his clients was his assistance with all the scandals we’ll never hear about, all the stories he coyly refers to as what would make for an “interesting book.”

It might seem impossible, then, to evaluate DeMoss’ long service as the go-to PR professional for the religious right. We can’t hope to measure the non-impact of stories he may or may not have succeeded in keeping us from ever knowing about.

Maybe now, though, we can do that — now that he’s retiring and won’t be there to sweep things under the rug or to get all the NDAs squared away. It will be interesting to see how many “interesting” stories begin to surface now that the first phone call for religious right leaders facing scandal has stopped answering the phone.

 

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