Friday, August 07, 2009

Elizabeth Kaeton on TEC Communications

Elizabeth Kaeton has been as troubled as Herb Gunn, I, and others about recent decisions within TEC about the communications of our church.

It seems clear that TEC has decided to focus its communications on “marketing and branding” instead of honest journalism and communications with Episcopalians. That was the point of Herb Gunn’s fine essay.

Many of us are concerned about this new and unfortunate direction within TEC. So was Elizabeth Kaeton. With Elizabeth’s permission, I am publishing the comment she posted on the HoBD listserv in response to Herb Gunn’s essay. Hers is a cautionary tale. I hope the remaining communicators at TEC will heed her words.

Elizabeth Kaeton on TEC Communications

Hmmm . . .

About four years ago, some of the marketing folks in my congregation launched a series of "focus groups" in the parish and community, with an eye toward "branding, marketing, messaging and public relations."

Some of the folks who had experience in the corporate world with "marketing strategists" pulled me over and whispered in my ear, "Careful, Skywalker. One misstep and you'll be on the Dark Side."

I laughed and tried to be a good "non anxious presence."

I made the translations from secular to religious language:

Branding = the uniqueness of our character as a Body of Christ.

Marketing, etc. = Evangelism.

No big deal. No problem.

Besides, people were talking about what really mattered to them about church in general and St. Paul's in particular. This is not a Bad Thing, thought their rector and pastor. Indeed, this is a Very Good thing, she thought. And, so it was.

After months of discussion and conversation, consuming more tea and "Lemon Delights" and "Death by Chocolate Cupcakes" than absolutely necessary, and lots of analysis and strategic marketing sessions, we got our 'logo' ("Logos" - get it?).

Ta Da!: A cruciform tree, in movement (some say it looks like a 'dancing tree'), with "The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham" over the top and a leaf strategically placed in the midst of the word 'Chatham', breaking beyond the word Chatham. (Evangelism - Get it?)

Colors: Red, White and Blue (Get it? - I mean, this town is not known as 'Republicanville' for nothin')

Building on the National Church's slogan: "Come. Grow." We took those two words and added: "Celebrate!" (We're Eucharistic and a Very Fun Place to Be - Get it?)

Applause! Applause! Huzzah! Huzzah! You listened to us, you really listened to us!

We got the stationery and business cards. We got the new sign. We buffed up our web page. We got a parish blog. We'll soon be on FaceBook. We moved from a monthly to a quarterly print newsletter.

Stop me if any of this is beginning to sound familiar.

It was smooth sailing for a time. "Ain't we smart?," we thought. "Ain't we clever?"

The first bump in the road came at the second Christmas Bazaar. I heard some of the organizers talking about some of the proposed vendors, and stopped dead in my tracks when I heard, "Oh, definitely not THAT one - or THAT one. Doesn't fit in with our 'brand.'"

"Why?" I asked. No one would look me in the eye. Through stammering and shuffling of feet I heard words like, "quality of product," and "not the market for that product."

"Who are they?" I asked. More stammering. More shuffling of feet. So, I looked at the list. Interesting. These were the vendors from communities with higher "minority populations" whose crafts benefited AIDS projects in Africa and women in domestic shelters.

"We have the word, 'Celebrate!' in our brand," they said. "AIDS is a real downer. It's not . . . [I swear to God this was said] . . . sexy."

I'll spare you the details and fast forward to the finish line: Those vendors WERE invited to be part of our Christmas Bazaar and did quite well, in fact. As I recall, they were one of a few who completely sold out.

That being said, I suddenly understood the earlier warning about "one misstep."

It's a different verse of the "branding, marketing, messaging and public relations" song, but Herb Gunn's essay raises some important questions.

He asks: "What is the role of objective reporting within the Episcopal Church, or any organization that strives to reveal itself? How do we report on the institution to which we not only belong, but consider beloved?"

He also makes an important point:
"Communication is a trust relationship based on honesty; communication is always, at least, two-way; a sharp distinction is to be made between communication and promotion; and the communicator's ultimate responsibility is to the people served.
"In fact, it is the very ethos of Anglicanism to eschew a dogmatic approach to almost anything, to trust scholarship and to allow and encourage the freedom to continue asking questions."
My grandmother used to say, "Wishes don't wash dishes," but I really wish Herb's questions and points had been allowed to surface and be discussed thoroughly - maybe a few focus groups in a few strategically considered dioceses - before top-down decisions were made.

I'm not saying the final decision is, necessarily, a bad thing. In fact, there are lots of good things about the process of discovering "branding, marketing, messaging and public relations." But, it IS a process that requires being in constant contact with your consumer / market base, which,
apparently, didn't happen.

All I'm saying is this: Careful, Skywalkers at 815. Even with the best of processes and the best of intentions and the smartest kids in the class in the driver's seat, all it takes is one misstep over the line between communication and promotion, between branding and exclusion. . . .

I echo Elizabeth's counsel to our Church Center staff: "Careful, Skywalker. One misstep, and you'll be on the Dark Side." We might lose our souls in TEC's effort to "market and brand" our church. We have truly Good News to share. It would be sad to lose that Good News in the midst of marketing and branding.


Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Herb makes the point that if we don't tell our stories, then others will, and they may not get the stories right. Will TEC official communication be journalism, or will it be what amounts to a house organ, or something in between, or both/and?

The Episcopal Café is, for now, my source of choice for journalism, opinion, story telling, and inspiration. As I understand it, the Diocese of Washington DC bears the financial burden of funding the operation, which seems not quite fair to me, since the whole church benefits from their efforts, and no one else is doing the job. The Diocese of Washington is hurting from reduced income, too.

8/07/2009 1:21 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, I guess I should have checked the logo before I wrote on it. The leaf is clearing bursting forth from St. Paul's, not Chatham. Same difference, since we are the only Episcopal Church in a town with two RC's and two Presbyterian Churches, one Quaker Meeting House, one Methodist Church, and two non-denominational Evangelical churches.

We were also very clear to put the emphasis on "Episcopal" - as in The Episcopal Church of St. Paul.

All that being said, I guess I really lament the lack of process around this at the national level. It's just so wrong on so many levels and betrays (and I use that word advisedly) the whole idea about branding and marketing.

All I can do is sit and shake my head in dismay.

Thanks for keeping this conversation going, Lisa. It's important. I'm deeply honored to have a place on your blog.

8/07/2009 7:10 PM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Thankyou for relaying this, Lisa. As usual with Elizabeth it's a most important message.

8/08/2009 3:09 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Replacing journalism with marketing is OK if it done publicly and honestly. It is however essential that we all get it. The church is out of one business and into another.

I think the top down decision making, led by 'crucified place' builders scares me the most. Upity lesbians, gays, progressives and mayhap women seem to fit in a category. {{shiver}}


8/08/2009 10:49 AM  
Blogger Leonardo Ricardo said...

My entire background is in retail/wholesale, product development, marketing, fashion and fine art...Grandmere is absolutely on top of this when she reports the best online connection with The Episcopal Church, is The Episcopal Cafe, Diocese of Washington D.C (in my opinion that I once was paid bundles for but offer freely)....why wouldn´t we want to enlarge upon fabulous talent mixed with a clear message of WELCOME, desireability and diversity? Why don´t we simply ask to join with the best at The Diocese of Washington (with humility) and faze out the rest of the endless pondering and wallpaper looking/dentist office trade journal inspired lack of inspiration and creativity...really, get those egos out of the way!

8/09/2009 9:20 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I’m with you, Grandmère. I no longer look to TEC for journalism. I started backing away about a year ago, when Jan Nunley had her bellyfull and left. For quite a while now, I have turned to Jim Naughton and the Episcopal Café for actual journalism about TEC and the Anglican Communion. And I have made a financial contribution to the Café that’s what I used to pay for my annual subscription to Episcopal Life.

Now that TEC has staked their future on “marketing and branding,” I quit them for good.

I know TEC still has a few real journalists on staff, but I no longer have confidence that they will be supported at the executive level. I’ll put my money on Jim Naughton and his team for real journalism.

8/09/2009 10:36 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Not to worry, Elizabeth. I think your logo is delightful. More importantly, I think your story is a cautionary tale that commands attention.

Like you, I am most discouraged about the lack of process. The executive staff at Church Center made a unilateral decision to kill Episcopal Life without so much as consulting with its Board of Governors. I find that a chilling, unilateral action. Utterly chilling. Miserably unilateral. It makes me wonder what is happening at 815 2nd Avenue. It makes me worry about the leadership of the church I love.

I am honored that you let me copy your HoBD post here.

Yes, I think it’s an important conversation. Those who read my blog from the Diocese of Missouri will read this story with some perspective. About three years ago, some guru decided we should kill our diocesan newspaper and replace it with a slick quarterly magazine that was worthy of being kept on our coffee-tables. It was an abysmal failure. The people of our diocese had no reliable, timely source of news from the diocese. Thanks be to God, my diocese is now returning to a tabloid-size newspaper this year.

Maybe my diocesan experience was eccentric. But as far as I can tell, the Chief Operating Officer of TEC didn’t even bother to query the dioceses nor their communications officers. She made a unilateral decision without consultation. And that is what really ticks me off.

I keep coming back to your counsel: "Careful, Skywalker. One misstep, and you'll be on the Dark Side." I hope the executive staff at Second Avenue is aware of that warning.

8/09/2009 10:52 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, Göran, I do think it's an important warning for our church and her leadership to hear. But will they listen?

8/09/2009 10:54 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yep, that worries me too, Jim. We still have a few journalists on staff. Replacing them and their skills with people committed to “marketing and branding” sends shivers up my spine, too.

8/09/2009 10:57 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Leonardo, I'm not entirely sure I'm following your entire line of reasoning. But let me say this: The Episcopal Café is a ministry of the Diocese of Washington. Jim Naughton has, indeed, assembled an impressive group of talented people. But if we want it to thrive, we should also send a donation there. A one-year subscription to Episcopal Life (which is about to die) was $27. Will those who treasure the Episcopal Café make an analogous contribution to support the good work of Jim and the Diocese of Washington? I sure hope so!

8/09/2009 11:08 PM  

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