What we can learn about copywriting from religious pamphlets

What we can learn about copywriting from religious pamphlets

Those Watchtower Society brochures are actually extremely well-written and hit all the PR copywriting high notes...

I’ve always had a strange, slightly embarrassing love for religious reading material.

As a child growing up in a 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. And while none of their arguments ever persuaded me to join a religious organisation, I came to admire the craft involved in these publications.

My fascination with sectarian propaganda turned into a Master’s thesis on ‘religious racketeering in 1930s Japan’, and my time as a researcher there included zealous collecting of handouts from every two-bit religious sect I could find.

Even though I no longer collect the stuff in physical form, my fascination with religious pamphlets still abides. Furthermore, in my 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 quality copy editing, 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.

In its most extreme form, ISIS’ now defunct magazine Dabiq was disturbing not so much for its grisly execution photos, but for the astonishingly high quality of writing found within its pages. As Sam Harris pointed out in one of his many discussions on Islamist extremism, good copy editing is not what you want to see in a magazine like this, as it clearly demonstrates the calibre of people that the terrorist organisation was, at its peak at least, able to recruit.

But more broadly, religious people care deeply about their message, and as a consequence, the quality of writing in their propaganda.

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 organised 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 wise 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 of my takeaways from Watchtower Society collateral:

1. They state their mission clearly, right off the bat

As I type, I’m staring at a Jehovah’s Witnesses 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. They 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 and the universe (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, in the secular world, we tend to assume people need to hear something once and ‘we’ve got it’ - whereas religious leaders recognise that messages 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. They provide ample supportive ‘evidence’

I know I’m going to get crucified (put intended) by the Nu-Atheists out there for characterising 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 a high 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 data.gov.uk or the Office for National Statistics, for example.

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 buying a product, using a service, voting for a candidate or protesting 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 / a 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 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 them 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.

Content is not king

Content is not king

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