The Church of England is “spectacularly bad” at forging a successful media and comms strategy according to Communard-turned-cleric Richard Coles, who believes his denomination falls down particularly when it tries to adapt too much to the modern marketing.
The reverend told The Drum that he believes it to be ironic that the CoE’s communications aren’t as effective as they should be considering Christianity has been specialising in that field for the last two millennia.
“I think partly there’s a weirdness about the church that doesn’t translate very readily into the kind of vocabulary, language and grammar of modern marketing – but I quite like that,” he said. “I think when the church really gets it wrong is when it tries to adapt itself to that a little too readily – you get the baseball cap, skateboarding vicars thing which is very rarely successful.”
But there are opportunities for the church to take, particularly in today’s world where every day social and political anxieties can be alleviated – or at least better understood – by looking through the religion’s “challenging” and “very angled” lens.
"I think the interesting thing about reinvention is how many people experience that need at some point in their lives. Once they’ve established themselves in one career all of a sudden there’s this very powerful impulse to do something different while you have the chance – it seems like a very common experience.
“It’s just a question of finding a way to do that which is honest and has integrity but also has something kind of edgy about it too,” Coles said.
He himself is perhaps the epitome of this, transforming throughout the 1990s from a less than holy pop singer into a reverend. But his past life, and particularly his experience with the media, is a useful card to have in his back pocket.
“I think lots of people who have had careers, particularly in the financial sector, find something in the brutal realities of pounds, shillings and pence that makes them want to be a bit more tentative and exploratory about all sorts of things,” he explained. “But actually it’s very interesting when you reinvent yourself with that experience. I’m involved with fundraising and it’s useful to me to have has some commercial experience and particularly media experience to build relationships with people who might be able to fund – out of their own generosity – projects with public benefit.”
If Coles still thinks his job still comes with a commercial edge, should the Church of England be thinking of itself as more of a brand than an supranational institution?
“The church has been perhaps the most successful brand of all, the cross being perhaps the most recognised logo of any corporate interest,” he said. “Just a tour around Rome or Florence will show you how brilliant the mastery was of the manipulation in using symbols to tell stories.
“I think now because the church has declined so rapidly and so fast it’s struggled to find a persuasive account of itself in a world which looks to other places for authority and persuasion. So that’s a huge challenge… but it there’s lots of opportunities as well.”