Pagan Organizations: Responding to Good News and Bad News

Pagan Organizations: Responding to Good News and Bad News August 23, 2012

Every single Pagan organization that aspires to serve its chosen community, whether that community is local, regional, national, or even international, needs someone who will interact with the press (and social media). If you don’t, or if it’s seen as an odious task that’s always last on the list, or it it takes months to craft a statement, you become as good as mute to the very people you wish to serve. Your organization defaults to letting other people shape the discourse on issues that your community may have strong opinions about.  If you look at any well-organized religious organization, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, one thing that becomes obviously very quickly is that they are constantly framing discussions that concern them for their audience.

Everything on the site is an effort to define themselves to visitors so that others have a harder time defining them in ways they can’t control (or don’t like).  Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has noted time and time again that groups who don’t take time to frame themselves, have it done for them.

“It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. […]  ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act. […] In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.”

Let’s repeat that: “Framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.” So it is more than vital for Pagan organizations of all kinds to be increasingly media savvy, and to always frame their actions (and reactions) with a mind towards how it will shape perceptions. We must be ever-responsive to media narratives that sow confusion or misinformation about our faiths, because you never know which story will “stick” and be the one that inadvertently shapes how other people perceive our moral universe. For example, the recent story of infamous child-murderer Charles Jaynes asking to change his name to Manasseh-Invictus Auric Thutmose V because he claims to be a Wiccan now.


“Court documents show that child murderer Charles Jaynes wants to go by the name Manasseh-Invictus Auric Thutmose V. Jaynes is serving a life sentence for the 1997 kidnapping, molestation and murder of Jeffrey Curley. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2021. […] A filing with the Plymouth division of the Probate and Family Court Department says Jaynes is seeking the change due to his Wiccan beliefs. Wicca is a religion that incorporates the practice of witchcraft.”

That story is currently the number two result when you search Google News for “Wicca” (thankfully the #1 result is a positive piece in the New York Times). Heading into Pagan Pride season, when many Pagans are getting interviewed by the media, it’s very possible that Pagans might be asked about this, and they’ll need to have a good answer. Off-the-cuff responses can sometimes be disastrous, which is where Pagan and Wiccan groups can step up and begin framing the response should this become more than an isolated blip. Obviously we shouldn’t try to interject ourselves into the actual debate, which is fraught with deep emotional pain, but we can offer good information about what Wicca is and isn’t, and what our morals are. For example, if asked, a Pagan representative could say:

“Many Wiccans do decide to adopt a new name to reflect their changed outlook on life, a phenomenon often found in many adult conversions to a wide variety of religious traditions. Wicca abhors the kind of crimes committed by Mr. Jaynes, as many of us believe in an ethic of reciprocity that places harming none central to our lives. We pray for the families hurt in this terrible tragedy, and hope that Mr. Jaynes has truly embraced a philosophy of empathy and non-violence.” 

Or some variant thereof, whatever works best theologically and culturally for the organization or group presented with such a scenario. Another tactic is to pivot away from controversy towards a recent positive development that better reflects what your group/religion/movement is about. If asked about the above name-change story, one could give a shorter variant of my answer above, but then pivot to a still-emerging story about how a Wiccan group in Arkansas won a grant from Home Depot to repair the homes of elderly and aging individuals in their community.

“It’s tragic that so much sorrow and pain has been caused by this situation, as Wicca is a religion devoted to healing, communing with the natural world, and being of service to our communities. An excellent example is The Southern Delta Church of Wicca winning a grant from Home Depot to repair the homes of the elderly in their community. That’s the kind of world our faith tradition is trying to build, one where we are accountable to our neighbors and work to improve the lives of those around us.”

Again, with changes depending on who’s saying it, and in what context.

No matter what the tone or tenor of the news, good or bad, a responsive organization will work to frame both for their members, and for any who come to their site seeking more information. It’s a lot of work, but necessary work if you want to help shape how our faiths are experienced by outsiders and the media. You can’t let anyone else do that work for you, even if they are supportive of your goals. No matter how much you may like The Wild Hunt, never let me or any other media outlet have the only say into a project or action that you’re involved with. A positive article is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one, and you’ll want to make sure that people understand exactly what your stance is in case important details are omitted. At the very least, you’ll want to post regular updates for those introduced to you by media attention.

Before I end this post, one more example: I recently reported on what a bad idea it is for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to participate in what is a de facto religious test held by Christian mega-church pastor Rick Warren. Shortly after several media outlets started discussing the issue, Obama campaign officials announced that they weren’t going to participate. This left a lot of egg on Warren’s face since he’d told reporters that both campaigns had already signed off on participating (never say something is going to happen unless you know it’s going to happen), so to re-frame this blow to his stature as a moral heavyweight, he’s taking the high-road and claiming the event is cancelled due to all the mud-slinging the campaigns are engaging in.

“In his announcement, Warren said the campaign’s current climate, highlighted by “irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads,” is not what a civil forum aims to promote: respect between those with differences. He said he does not expect that climate of incivility to change before the election. “It would be hypocritical to pretend civility for one evening only to have the name-calling return the next day,” he said.”

So Warren gets to flounce out of his dilemma with a Shakespearean “plague on both your houses,” shifting the blame onto the nasty campaigns instead of the fact that Warren may not be trustworthy, and both candidates wanted to avoid being caught in a “gotcha” moment by a pastor with his own agenda. Warren understood that he had to frame the collapse of his event in a way that bolstered his image instead of tarnishing it. Hopefully no Wiccan or Pagan organization will be in a situation as embarrassing, but all the same a useful example of how to use media narratives to define your “brand” to the wider public. So make sure you have a media person, that you understand social media, that you’re constantly updating your site and satellite  pages on social networking hubs, and that you understand the power of framing the news (both good and bad) in furthering your goals and message.

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44 responses to “Pagan Organizations: Responding to Good News and Bad News”

  1. Once again, a really solid response to current “currents”, as it were. This is one area where I think it is good to emulate bigger and more established religious movements, especially as neopaganism as a whole is becoming more visible (though perhaps less trendy than in previous decades).

  2. The few times that I’ve been involved in public rituals and/or public events, it was made very clear at the outset who it was that was going to deal with the media. It’s been rare, in my experience, that anyone from the media shows up unless it’s October, but it’s best to plan for these things in advance.

  3. I think everyone who takes it upon themselves to be a public figure should undergo some kind of public relations training. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, or cohesive, but it needs to help form a foundation for the WHEN, not the IF. By being in public one has to be aware that they are, on some level, representative of a greater movement than they may think. The impression that they make can have far reaching consequences and potentially shift the image of the whole in the minds of the curious.

    There are people who are just very naturally charismatic, and are able
    to deal with being approached about items or topics off the cuff, while
    others need the practice. Paganism is a religion that’s under a great deal of constant scrutiny, and organizations need to react more quickly to issues that arise. Jason, you do a wonderful job with it, but like you said, you’re not representative of the whole of the movement. Groups that operate in the public, expect to be visited by non-members, or inquired upon, need to be able to put on a very public face.

    This isn’t even about dealing with people courteously and having all/any of the answers. It’s about being able to respond in a timely matter, and translate the issues of the group, or the interests of the group, or how external factors affect the group, across the broad spectrum.

    Even us solitaries need to be aware of this. We don’t live in a vacuum. This isn’t something ONLY for groups and covens to worry about.

    tl;dr I completely agree.

  4. Reminds me of the time a pamphlet went out for a metro/regional public Samhain for which no other planning had been done. It was salvaged by the heroic actions of a few but that’s not how you want to operate.
    Good talking point lines, Jason; thanks!

  5. Excellent stuff, Jason. As noted by others, especially with PPD season and Halloween coming up, I hope this gets widely read.

  6. I think the worst off-the-cuff line would be better than that eyeroller about Home Depot. That just brings out the “Oh God! Who cares?” response and it is such an obvious smokescreen that it leaves the listener knowing that wool is being pulled. Far better to look right in the camera and say, “He’s calling himself WHAT?” Don’t worry about any grief, those poor devils aren’t the story. The crazy murderer picking the ridiculous name is the story.

  7. I agree with you completely, Jason. However, I would add to it that merely trying to or wanting to frame the Craft in a positive light really isn’t enough. You have to know how to do it. Politicians have people such as Frank Luntz on the right ( see and Thom Hartmann on the left (see instructing them on what to do. Some political parties actually give classes in what and how to talk in order to frame the discussion the way they want it.

    To quote the subtitle of Luntz’s book, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” so if you don’t use the right words in the right way both you and what you represent look bad…or worse. Therefore, I strongly urge anyone who is going to represent a group in the media to study or even get training in how to communicate. Yes, we do want to control the frame, but if the frame we present and think is positive ends up being negative in the minds of the audience, we’ve only enhanced those who oppose us rather than open minds.

  8. Really love this article. My job is in PR and it’s frustrating that many pagans view any public relations tactics as somehow malevolent.

  9. No one is good “off-the-cuff” UNLESS they have practiced for the
    contingency. It’s not about rehearsing for a particular question.

    I spent many years on the administrative side of a major PR firm. I saw
    how they trained CEOs and other business big shots to deal with crisis
    situations. They’d even stage fake media ambushes in the hallways to get
    the clients to understand the stress they’d be under when asked
    questions. I saw how it was done, and I learned the principles they
    tried to convey.

    What they are taught to do is to essentially ignore whatever they are
    being asked and instead bridge (that’s the term they use: bridging) from
    whatever question was actually asked to whatever question they actually
    want to answer. Next time you see a politician or a businessman on TV,
    you can spot them doing it. And despite what Charles believes, you can
    see all the time that the reporters let them get away with it. I don’t
    know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of people yelling at the TV,
    “Answer the question! That’s not an answer! That’s not what they asked
    you!” And it doesn’t matter. What gets accepted and picked up in the
    sound bite is the pre-planned talking point.

    You don’t have to have an answer to everything. But you do have to practice bridging to what you want to say.

    Remember, too, that politicians in debates have aides who ask them every
    possible question they can think of, so the politician–or
    spokesperson–can have an answer prepared OR a go-to talking point to
    which they can bridge. We can do that with our own spokespeople.
    Practice, practice, practice — that’s why they call it *working* magic

  10. Great article but why not take it to the next level? When are we going to evolve to have fundraising for our own organizations and take care of our Clergy and laymen or women? We are there you know, we have Wiccan Churches that have been active since 1991 and have over forty people all the time coming to circles but hardly any financial support. Do you think better PR could help with this?

  11. That or with a frivolity that is infuriating. “I don’t want to broadcast our religion!”. Doesn’t mean that one can expect to exist in a vacuum.

  12. I’m a huge fan of having contingency boilerplate if you are running any sort of organization that will have contact with the general public (and, in some cases, having boilerplate for inter- and intra-organizational communication). A good example from my days in PR classes, when a plane crashes, the airline industry already has a standard letter to media that is ready to go out. All that has to be put in is the date, time, flight number, arrival and departure locations, location where incident occurred, and number of persons on board. Within minutes of a plane going down, that press release is advanced to all media outlets. It generally gives those bare-bones facts, expresses concern/sympathy for those involved, and provides media contacts. At that point, you’ve bought yourself an hour or two while you figure out what really happened and can organize a press conference.

    Having seen various instances within pagan events where there’s challenges of a lesser concern, the model is still an effective one. If something goes hideously horribly wrong, emotions tend to be high, facts are in short supply, and people are more likely to trip over their words. That is not the time when you want to sit down and write something that, whether accurate or not, will be taken as gospel for a long time to come. It is also useful to have boilerplate for obituary notices for the same reason. In fact, when I worked in PR (writing press releases for a major nonprofit organization), I would only write one paragraph and a headline for every press release that went out–everything else was boilerplate. It may take a bit of time and energy to get everything set up from the get-go, but once it is in place, it will be less work for your media relations person/spokesperson/webmaster/person whose name gets passed around.

    Brand identity and branding is a topic that I’ve brought up with everyone who will listen to me ramble on about it. 😉 It is so profoundly vital to have brand identity in this day and age, and then to make sure you are consistently presenting the brand that you want to for the different levels of social interaction. In almost every case, people I’ve mentioned it to say that they feel that “their actions will display their brand” and so they don’t need to put effort into defining themselves. This often means that they are left either undefined or defined by the worst actions/spoken words/written words of a very small minority of the members. Then it becomes a massive headache trying to re-brand, re-establish identity, and engage in damage control. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure….especially in media.

  13. Very good article, IMO. One suggestion, if I may, with regard to your first suggested response:
    “Many Wiccans do decide to adopt a new name to reflect their changed outlook on life, a phenomenon often found in many adult conversions to a wide variety of religious traditions. Wicca abhors the kind of crimes committed by Mr. Jaynes, as many of us believe in an ethic of reciprocity that places harming none central to our lives. We pray for the families hurt in this terrible tragedy, and hope that Mr. Jaynes has truly embraced a philosophy of empathy and non-violence.”
    Little-known facts: the secular media are not your friend, and the media in general love to stir up controversy (which sells). It would be no surprise at all if, on the evening news, the soundbite got edited down to ““Many Wiccans do decide to adopt a new name to reflect their changed outlook on life,” and you have essentially reinforced the hostilie framing. Confining your response to the last two sentences–or, better yet, responding with something along the lines of your second suggestion, avoids letting others define the terms of the discourse.
    Such responses may not directly address the question asked, but, as
    PhaedraHPS pointed out earlier, this form of bridging (also known as “staying on message”) is an accepted approach to dealing with this type of issue.

  14. Better PR helps with everything in this media-obsessed world. Better PR would give Pagans the opportunity to reach out for mainstream sources of funding.

  15. For the most part I agree with you Jason, however the organization that you cite as an example has probably around a hundred million dollar budget to hire media experts and political lobbyists to “frame” their issues. The Pagan community is not nearly that evolved or that monolithic in views about any issue. The closest that Pagan groups come to this is The Hindu American Foundation. Their budget is only a few million and they have a paid staff that amounts to less than 10. They do a good job with what they have but they readily admit that this is small potatoes compared to other religious lobbying organizations. Can you name any other Pagan organization that has any paid person in any capacity. We have a long way to go here for many reasons.

  16. Greg, I think a committed group of volunteers, while not able to reach the heights of Catholic power, can indeed manage PR and media for a organization the size of, say, COG, pretty well.

  17. Very good advice, Jason. I’ve written about this topic a number of times:

    One additional point. It is completely OK to say, “Sorry; I’m not familiar with that [case, person, controversy, etc.] so I won’t comment.” Or, “I will have to check and get back with you,” although then you really do have to check and get back. Just because a reporter asks you a question doesn’t mean that you have to answer it. What’s YOUR goal for the interview? Focus on that and don’t let the reporter control where the interview goes. If you’re not very clear about your goal, don’t do an interview.

  18. My response would be, “Let’s hope that the murderer’s religious conversion helps him to take responsibility for his crime and aids in his rehabilitation.” And I’d preface that with “I don’t presume to speak for all Pagans or Wiccans, this is MY opinion only”.

  19. Having recently stepped down as the National Media Officer for the Pagan Awareness Network in Australia after 7 years in the job, there are many, many things I could say in relation to this very insightful post by Jason.

    In fact, I’d write a book about my experiences, if I thought anyone would believe me.

    It was like warfare – 99% of the time composed of waiting and watching, and the other 1% spent in frenzied action praying I didn’t f&ck up.

    In terms of getting the Pagan ‘brand’ out there, we face a few issues: the biggest being (still) a credibility gap. A picture of a Catholic Bishop decked out in vestments and holding a crozier is a picture of respectability, while a Druid in white robes with a staff is to this day perceived by many sections of the mainstream media as nutbaggery.

    The greatest aid in closing that credibility gap in the last decade has, in my opinion, been the increasingly visible and important role played by Pagan academics as a ‘buffer’ between the Pagan community and the mainstream media.

    I am also very glad that the nature of journalism has changed, and that blogs such as this one and the PNC have taken root. Pagan journalism is in my view a very effective means to framing Paganism for the mainstream media, which all too often has relied upon the old shell game of ‘headline the controversy, report the backlash, and editorialize the balanced view’ in its dealings with us. Pagan journalism is proving to be a means for accountability in this area that heretofore has been denied to us.

  20. Education is key, along with learning to question everything as well as the motives of others when presenting information.

  21. In most states, you can’t legally change your name if it’s to commit fraud, and that should disqualify him in at least a couple ways.

  22. In the military, for PR, your final is being woken up in the middle of the night, given 10 minutes to get dressed and looking presentable while someone fills you in on the details of something horrific. After that, you are thrown in front of a Press Conference.

  23. That supposed he is intending to commit fraud (whilst incarcerated) as opposed to trying to make a new start.

  24. When people really VALUE something over time, they embody it in behaviors recorded in their calendars and checkbooks. If they collaborate with others for shared purposes, over time they create institutions, such as covens, PPD, regional festivals, community centers, libraries, etc.

    If the people who attend don’t value the Wiccan church as much as they value garb, crystals, and fantasy, then they’ll get costumers, mines, and giftshops, but the Wiccan church will be more of a fantasy, limited by the amount of energy hobbyists want to invest after they take care of their professional and family lives.

  25. Better PR is important for many reasons, but I think it’s a waste of time to hope that non-Pagans will fund projects to serve the Pagan community.

    I’ve worked on capital campaigns and in grant research; why would a
    foundation support a group whose own members don’t support it

    Better PR WOULD attract better people to join our movement; the more religiously mature would be more willing to put his money where his mouth is.

  26. just a layman’s view, and I’m sure you know these, too, but I think being honest about your expenses and financial needs and being upfront about the need for money to keep them available can go a long way. Ask for money, giving a figure divided up will cover expenses. Have whoever is keeping track of the treasury post the figures on a regular basis, and how much you’re in the hole, but somewhere that’s a link, rather than that be the sad news every time everyone reads about you. People don’t like guilt on a long-term basis, they’d rather feel good about a group and send them support. Praise your donors and those who’ve been doing work for you all that is unpaid, don’t make everything be a literally thankless job and the glory go to those who just present themselves only for the rituals themselves. Those who prepare the space and clean up afterwards are awesome.

    Everybody’s been in the situation where a person who claims they can’t afford 5-10$ or won’t donate to help carry the rental fee comes in with the latest pricey thing to show off on their person. You can’t do anything about that, but you aren’t alone.

  27. If asked, I guess I’d say,

    ANYBODY can call himself anything; as of now, he’s known by a number in the prison system.

    I’m skeptical of sudden jailhouse conversions; transformation of character is an organic development which takes time. Wiccans believe that harming others brings greater harm to oneself. This guy has a long way to go before he’d be considered by any Wiccan group I know.

  28. I don’t want to emulate Rick Warren on anything, ever.

    I agree we should have PR plans and training for this type of situation, but I would stop short of turning the tables, lying, and shaming those that don’t cater to my every whim. The Pagan community should not be gearing up to “flounce out of our dilemmas” and “shift the blame” but should be prepared to deal with our issues face on, with integrity and with honesty.

    I’m sure emulating Warren is not what you intended as the take-away message here, Jason, but it’s an unfortunate example in a piece that is supposed to be giving us helpful advice in dealing with bad news situations. That last example was not helpful.

  29. I’m not saying we should emulate Warren’s ethics, but he does provide an example of how framing can shift the conversation when your plans do collapse in a way you weren’t expecting.

  30. Yes, but it’s a negative example. How can we reframe without turning it into an aggressive attack, bad-mouthing and defaming others? How can we reframe without going on the offensive? What would going on the offensive even look like in a case like this? Unless somebody knows this inmate personally, we have nothing to say about him and his motivation for the name change. All we can say is that legitimate Wiccans don’t murder people. I don’t consider that kind of truth-telling to be “reframing” the conversation, just responding.

    (Sure, we can then turn the conversation to the actual tenets of our beliefs, but we sure don’t have an agenda or sound-bites we’re trying to push the way that Warren does. We’re not a political party, unlike some conservative Christian movements.)

  31. The same sort of qualms and considerations also apply to other examples that people have used, including from the corporate world, the military, and The Church.

    But this is the ancient dilemma with the noble, Pagan, art of rhetoric. If one masters that art, then one has mastered the power to persuade. How one uses that power is another matter. But all the noble intentions in the world don’t get us very far if we are inarticulate and incompetent in our “messaging”.

    The good news is that we do not become like Rick Warren simply by being good communicators. We only become like him if what we are communicating is evil.

    So I think Jason is absolutely right. We can learn even from the scumbag Rick Warren. Just as anyone who wants to study cinematography cannot afford to overlook the work of Leni Riefenstahl.

  32. Sadly, Paganism, Wicca, and the Craft are supremely hampered by a credibility problem with in the public sphere and media. Based on what I’ve read of other religious and social group’s past (and in some case historical) endeavors in regards marketing and PR against negative bias, I would say we have a very long row to hoe before we are first taken seriously, second tolerated, and thirdly, respected on a public wide basis. I remember a couple years ago I became aware that there were some grants that would be given to religious organizations for charitable outreach. A friend of mine is a well-respected lobbyist on the Hill in D.C. and I asked her if a Non-Profit Pagan organization I’m affiliated with should apply. Her response: Don’t waste your time; you won’t get the grant because any politician that would champion your organization would be committing career suicide. I appreciated her being forthright with me and I feel the example highlights our PR and perspective challenges bluntly and succinctly.

  33. Jason – I agree with you. I’ve whole worked in other organizations who, though they weren’t pagan, were a dedicated group of volunteers who were also proficient and even experts in their various fields (PR, accounting, etc). We were able to do much despite no pay check coming in for our efforts.

    Greg -True, as a whole Paganism isn’t mature enough to have people paid either to do public relations, marketing, or lobbying, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do the work regardless. The work must be done by us because it’s important to our present, our future, and also (I believe) in helping us reframe our past. .

  34. Pagan Media Relations professionals (including me, now mostly out of that game) and skillful amateurs will agree with the gist of your post. Within a media-driven over-culture, soundly prepared and well-coached media relations spokes-types and strategies are needed.

    But I will add that, in some regards, the values and practices of media relations in the over-culture may–and probably do–diverge from, if not contradict, some values and practices held dear by elements and communities of the Pagan community. Perhaps, even, of powers, spirits, guardians, deities, and energies embraced by the Pagan world.

    In this sense, a Pagan-hearted approach to media relations may look toward councils and consensus for its points of framing,,,

  35. He’d have to prove he wasn’t trying to conceal his identity to be able to hurt someone else.
    This shouldn’t be an issue, he should have to stay in prison