Pagan Organizations: Responding to Good News and Bad News

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 23, 2012 — 44 Comments

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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters