Thursday, 1 August 2013

6 PR Copywriting Lessons From Religious Pamphlets

I have a confession to make: I quite enjoy receiving leaflets from religious organizations. As a child growing up in an essentially secular family, I devoured faith-based pamphlets anytime they were dropped off at our house by the Watchtower Society or on the rare occasion I went to church, not really believing in it but bewitched by the clarity and audacity of the claims made therein. My fascination with sectarian propaganda turned into a master's thesis on religious racketeering in 1930s Japan, and my time as a researcher in Japan included zealous collecting of handouts from every two-bit religious sect I could find.

Today as a PR professional, my fascination with religious pamphlets still abides, and while I no longer physically collect them, I always read them from beginning to end when they arrive in the mailbox. Furthermore, in my new professional capacity I have a new-found respect for the people who write these things. Love them or hate them, we could all learn a thing or two about content creation and key messages from the Watchtower people and other religious pamphleteers, and they serve as a great model for students of public relations.

Religion is without a doubt humankind's first attempt at public relations, and all of history's prophetic figures have been PR people of one sort or another. What were Moses' tablets but a Bronze-Age PowerPoint presentation of ten key messages? The Prophet Muhammad, prior to his revelations, was well known for his negotiation and peace-making skills between warring tribes, leading one Muslim PR blogger to describe him as the best PR man who ever lived. And Jesus of Nazareth, if you look past the conjuring tricks and questionable claims, was no less than the greatest ever spokesman for not being a dick.

I don't intend on getting into a Christopher Hitchens-type debate over whether religion is a force of good or evil in the world. Compelling arguments could (and regularly are) made for both, and in any case I don't know how useful a debate this is anyway. But what I think can't be argued is that the communications model that the forces of organized religion have developed and fine-tuned over the course of 5,000 years is nothing short of brilliant, and that anybody planning on a career in communications would be well recommended to take a serious look at the world's religious sects, and specifically their messaging.

And as for those Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets that occasionally appear at your door, at times presented to you in person, don't turn them down and don't put them straight into the recycling bin. Read them. In addition to being remarkably well written much of the time, they embody many important lessons for today's PR professional. Here are a few takeaways from Watchtower Society collateral.

1. State their mission clearly right off the bat.

As I type I'm staring at a JW brochure that was dropped off at our house the other day. The opening salvo: "Would you like to know the truth?" OK, we're talking about deep, universal truths, and even if the truth they propose turns out to be outlandish and doesn't ring true, it's still an appealing sales pitch. I mean, who doesn't want to know the truth? Granted, we all blanket ourselves in convenient self-deceptive untruths now and then, but at our more calm and meditative moments, we all want to know the truth. And with this as a lead, you're immediately drawn in with the anticipation of some sort of 'eureka' moment.

2. Use clear, simple language.

It goes without saying that religious copywriters write with one purpose in mind: to be understood by as wide a range of people as possible. Mind you, religious leaders can be terribly ambiguous and confusing much of the time, but on a basic level religious propagandists want to convince you that their worldview is the best one out there and you should join them. The pamphlet in front of me moves on to a series of bullets which succinctly capture the big questions that every human being at one point or another has contemplated.

  • Does God really care about us?
  • Will war and suffering ever end?
  • What happens to us when we die?
  • Is there any hope for the dead?
  • How can I pray and be heard by God?
  • How can I find happiness in life?

Writing doesn't get much more crystal-clear than this. It's virtually perfect, and any corporate copywriter producing materials for their employer would be well off taking a page out of the Jehovah's Witnesses' book of message crafting.

3. Know your audience.

When I pick up a religious pamphlet, it's generally not because I'm looking for deep truths about life, the universe and everything. (I'm much more likely to pick up Douglas Adams for this.) However, it's probably safe to say that people like me aren't the intended reader of religious leaflets. The successful public relations campaign attempts to sway the targeted public in one direction or another by appealing to that group's specific needs and circumstances, like promising "more flights to more places" or to "support the growth of open shop construction." Or the promise of eternal life in the presence of a loving God for those who embrace His message.

4. It's all about those key messages.

In a recent TED lecture entitled 'Atheism 2.0' philosopher Alain de Botton noted that while in the secular world we tend to assume people need to hear something once and we've got it, whereas religious leaders recognize that message need to be repeated in order for them to sink in. In public relations we call the former school of thought the "Magic Bullet Theory" and everybody with any experience in the industry knows this never works. The central tenant of the Christian faith, namely that all can be saved through Jesus Christ, punctuates every single piece of literature the church has ever produced, from the New Testament onward, hence why the message has stuck.

5. Provide ample supportive 'evidence'.

I know I'm going to get crucified (put intended) by the Nu-Atheists out there for characterizing scriptural passages as 'evidence', but if your conversational context is indeed religion, then your storehouse of facts and figures is by definition going to be religious scripture. And religious pamphlets always provide an ample volume of this, with every supposition backed up by Biblical, Qur'anic or Sutric passages. Ask a rhetorical question, give the reader and answer and back it up with a quote from the Holy Book. It's the same formula one uses in a business case, except substitute the New Testament for the latest data from Abacus or Statistics Canada.

6. Always end with a call to action... and contact info.

In the end, the purpose of public relations is to persuade people to do something, be that buy a product, use a service, vote for a candidate or protest against something. And for this reason, a PR campaign is useless unless it contains a clearly stated call to action, a "Here's what you can do" section. And on this too, PR pros would be well-advised to look at religious leaflets. Ultimately the purpose of these brochures is to put butts in pews or on prayer mats by giving people a compelling reason to attend church/mosque/whatever, and then giving them info on how to find one near them.

These days, religious pamphlets invariably direct the reader to online resources. The Watchtower Society has - it should be noted - a truly amazing website, one of the best I've ever seen. It's available in virtually every language in existence, from Acholi to Zapoteca, and will locate the nearest JW congregation to you wherever you live (unless you live somewhere like North Korea where their church is banned). I still have no intention of joining their ranks, but I have to hand it to the JW's for being extremely skilled PR people. Their teachings on the cosmos and on blood transfusions may be wacky as hell, but they could all teach us a thing or two about effective communication.


  1. People get a chance to read detailed information about different products, without the distractions of the Internet by pamphlets and brochures, and this often leads to calls-in, website visits or purchasing decisions.
    With the help of internet making a pamphlet has become so easy.

    1. Agreed, that's what makes them a continually worthwhile form of collateral marketing. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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