Sunday, March 18, 2018

Justin Dean's PR Matters, a review

Copyright (c) 2017 by Justin J. Dean
Published by DOXA Media Group, LLC
ISBN 0692862676
ISBN-13:978-069286267 4
Library of Congress Control Number 2017909376
First Edition 2017

First thing of note is about the Amazon page.  Carey Nieuhof, Mark MacDonald, Dave Adamson, Sutton Turner, and Tim Schraeder all have blurbs at the front of the book commending it, and are also all named in the back in Acknowledgments as having supported the writing and publication of the book.  Dean even goes so far as to say in the acknowledgments that Schraeder, Adamson, Justin Bracket and Carey Nieuhof are friends who risked their own reputations to life his up, along with naming a few others.  So it's something to bear in mind with the Editorial Reviews section of the Amazon page.

With respect to the eight current Amazon reviews

Mark MacDonald has a review
Dave Adamson has a review
Justin Brackett has a review 

all three give the book five stars.  As of this week all eight reviews of Dean's book are all five stars and three of those reviews are from men who have blurbs at the front of the book and are acknowledged in the back. 

While I wouldn't give the book a five star rating I would give it a very solid three stars.  The content of the book is generally informative of what church communicators and public relations people should be aware of going into or perservering within that line of work.  The chapters are clearly delineated and readable.  While Justin Dean is not exactly a riveting stylist and his humor tends to be on the labored side for my own tastes, he gets his ideas across succinctly and with very little fuss.  He explains the need for an awareness of public relations in contemporary American churches; what kind of person is cut out for doing this sort of work; how to create a PR plan; why relationships matter in PR work; what things to bear in mind about the press; why social media is non-negotiable for contemporary churches; and offers advice on what he calls content on content on content.  He even provides a crisis plan at the end of the book for churches to use. 

It's a solid primer on what a church communicator should know about public relations and church communications in a media saturated culture.
That said, I do have a few concerns and suggestions about the book. 
The most significant suggestion I have for a potential future second edition has to do with Justin Dean's take on bloggers.  Not too surprisingly he regards bloggers as having a basically adversarial relationship with a local or regional church.  I ... can hardly fault him for having that impression even if I respectfully disagree with what I take to be the intensity of his conviction about bloggers.  I wanted Mars Hill to reform rather than collapse.  

I had meant to get around to reviewing Doug Wilson and Randy Booth's A Justice Primer but since that book was retracted in the wake of the discovery of rampant plagiarism that was highlighted by a blogger I can't exactly review that book.  It got a glowing review at The Gospel Coalition.  I mention that book because those who did praise the book claimed it was salient in the era of watchdog blogging and media frenzy, but whatever merits the book could have had were mooted by plagiarism.  It's worth bearing in mind that in evangelical/conservative Protestant contexts we have a handful of books that attempt to educate churches and church leaders on the volatile and visceral nature of the press that, so far, fall well short of explaining that there are theories and schools of thought that guide media use.  

This gets me to something I think a second edition should include, which is to introduce church staff to an old fashioned idea about theories of the press.  
Now I am well aware plenty of people consider Fred S. Siebert's Four Theories of the Press to be half a century old and completely out of date.

But it's a cheap book and it's a valuable primer on theories of the press in the 20th century for the United States mainstream press.  There are newer books exploring more complex understandings of the role of the press but Four Theories of the Press is valuable for laying out the four theories--there's an authoritarian view of the press, the libertarian theory of the press, the social responsibility theory of the press and the Soviet/communist theory of the press.   

The first holds that the truth is the product of a few wise men, who should be in charge of media and messaging.  I probably don't really need to say too much about the likelihood of church leaders making use of social and mass media tending to have some variation of the authoritarian theory of the press but I'm going to mention it because Justin Dean says the goal of public relations is to make sure that you, the church and associated communications experts, don't lose control of your own story.  That's a soft form of the authoritarian theory of the press, at least as Dean articulates it, but I understand it to be fundamentality an authoritarian theory of the press in action. 

The second, the libertarian theory, is arguably more popular and was formulated by the writings of Milton, Locke, Mill and Jefferson, arguing that in the quest for truth people will recognize the truth for what it is and so a large amount of freedom ought to be granted to the press to find the truth.  By and large I would guess that bloggers tend to lean hard on the libertarian theory of the press.  In too many cases bloggers probably don't understand the implications of libel of defamation laws and allow comments that shouldn't be published because they don't understand the distinction between public and private figures or what constitutes the distinctions between public figures, limited public figures, and private citizens.  

The social responsibility theory is what was formulated, broadly speaking, in the wake of the McCarthy era in the United States.  While there are those who might have advocated for libertarian understandings of the press prior to McCarthy the nature of that era was such that official sources tended to be taken more at face value.  It began to be evident that this could not always be the case.  While the self-congratulatory tone of a film like The Post mars the idea, the theory of the social responsibility of the press is what is sold in films like The Post or better films like Spotlight and we hardly need to namedrop the films related to Nixon from closer to the time of his resignation, do we? 

The Soviet system is a modified form of the authoritarian theory, basically, with Marxist/socialist ideals guiding the paradigm.   There are some liberal/left journalists who may be committed to social responsibility and others committed to a leftist cause with the ardor of a modified authoritarian understanding of the press. 

For the purpose of churches and watchdog blogs it will probably suffice to say that a church leadership culture is very likely going to embrace some variant of authoritarian understandings for the use of the press.  Bloggers and the press are more likely to be operating with the libertarian or social responsibility theories of the press, though a Soviet/Marxist/socialist conception of the aim of the press isn't impossible.  What Dean tends to see as the innate hostility of a blogger could be explicable by more than just a church leader thinking bloggers only have it out for his church, it can be a reflection of fundamentally different understandings of what the role of mass and social media ought to be.  If you have a church leadership culture practicing a form of the authoritarian theory of the press and trying to get out a message in every medium possible and they're dealing with a blogger who subscribes to the libertarian theory of the press then that blogger is not necessarily deliberately publishing falsehoods just to tar the church even if that's what a church communicator is very likely tempted to think.  Now the blogger might really be setting out to make the church look bad but he or she or they may also really believe in the libertarian theory of the press.  In those cases off the cuff remarks about how, you know, ,you can't trust what bloggers say will not be a very useful or responsible way to address the issue of what ends up in blogs  or in blog comments. 


If you have a church culture committed to an authoritarian view of the press and you end up dealing with a blogger who explicitly lays out his/her endorsement of the social responsibility theory of the press being a guiding paradigm (as I have a few times here at this blog) then it simply won't suffice to claim that a blogger just wants to make a church look bad.   

This is not mere abstraction to me. I spent an entire week going through every paragraph of the first version of Valerie Tarico's Alternet/Salon article about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll correcting the factual errors I found in just about every other paragraph.  Dean seems to traffic in a largely negative view of bloggers as adversarial that lacks nuance even as someone who was formerly in charge of PR at Mars Hill.  If he really kept track of every blog that had things to say about Mars Hill he might even know how many comments I deleted from people who insisted on saying stuff about former staff or elders that I regarded as unfit to publish.  It's not that I can't understand why someone like Justin Dean might view all bloggers with public criticism of the leadership culture of a church as inherently bad, it's that I think with his marketing background rather than a background in journalism, for instance, he may not be familiar enough with competing theories of the press to fully appreciate that this will play a significant role in a church vs. bloggers situation.   

So while I wouldn't say "Don't read this book" about Justin Dean's book I would suggest that if you're a church communicator also grab a copy of Four Theories of the Press if you don't already have it.  It's a relatively straightforward read and should be cheap to buy.   I strongly endorse a second edition of Dean's book making mention of theories of the press as a variable to consider.  Not all bloggers are really against churches on theological grounds.  It may be easier for Dean or others sympathetic to Mars Hill to say the liberal and secular press had it out for Mark and Mars Hill. That's not really in doubt, but any cursory overview of the nature of the scandals Mars Hill dealt with in its last two years highlights that Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll were coming under withering criticism from within the Reformed community over governance, doctrinal issues and the integrity of Mark Driscoll's intellectual property.  

There's no serious case to be made that Janet Mefferd, Warren Cole Smith, Carl Trueman, Chris Rosebrough or World Magazine could be considered secular or liberal or progressive.  Even at the level of the bloggers Wendy Alsup has been PCA and I attend a PCA church.  One of the claims Justin Dean has made in his book and in podcasts where he promotes his book is that Mars Hill was just not ready to face the hostile, secular liberal media.  I disagree that a careful chronological survey of the month after month public relations debacle Mars Hill faced in its last two years was ultimately about a hostile liberal press.  Twenty years ago Mark Driscoll made a point of talking with a journalist who quoted him at Mother Jones.  
When Mark Driscoll claimed that it was hard to know how to respond to criticism or reconcile in 2014 because they weren't sure who they were dealing with in some cases, this was hard to take at face value.  I got a certified letter from Scott Harris in 2013 requesting that I meet with him to talk about my blog.  I also had friends inform me they were contacted by MH leadership because the leaders knew exactly who Wenatchee The Hatchet was but were not sure who the source or sources were leaking content to me were. One of the challenges that Mars Hill leaders faced among many bigger ones was the question of how sensitive content that was published to The City kept showing up at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  During the high crisis years of Mars Hill there was some attempt to say that somehow Mars Hill got hacked but this seemed highly unlikely.  More plausible, indeed what I was personally told had been said was a concern from MH leaders, was that Mars Hill knew exactly who Wenatchee The Hatchet was but was unclear as to how extensive my network of sources was.  Since I'm not going to discuss that I'm not going to discuss that. 


But what I will discuss is something Justin Dean mentions in his chapter nine, "Content on Content on Content".  In this chapter Dean advises that you take a sermon and repurpose it multiple ways across every social and mass media platform you have.  Make soundbites of the key points made in the sermon and release those on line or pull quotes that can be put on Twitter.  Don't just have the whole unfiltered sermon up for download, make sure the salient points can be out there in a more easily digestible form.  But do be sure, however, to recycle and repurpose as much of the content into blog posts and social media derivatives as much as possible.  However many platforms you have for redistributing and repurposing the content, go for it. 

Which brings me to how I managed to find out as much as I did about the disciplinary case of Andrew Lamb.  I understood that this super-saturation approach to mass and social media was what Mars Hill did.  So when Matthew Paul Turner described how Andrew had a fiancĂ©e who had a stepfather but who was attending Mars Hill and whose father was at Mars Hill this attempt at anonymization on Turner's part failed to conceal the identity of the Noriegas at the Ballard campus.  The reason was relatively simple, there were just two men who were pastors at Mars Hill Ballard who had remarried.  Bill Clem remarried after Jeannie Clem died.  James Noriega remarried after having a conversion experience and spending time at the Union Gospel Mission and this was reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Noriega and Clem's role in gifting what became Mars Hill West Seattle was announced gladly by Mark Driscoll from the pulpit.  The blog posts and twitter feeds of the Noriegas made everything else about identifying that Andrew was connected to them fairly straightforward. 

Dean's advice, overall, to church communicators, is solid and practical advice if you're in a church that has decided it wants to embrace mass and social media as a way to get your reputation established in cyberspace.  The caveat is that, having chronicled a good deal about the peak and decline of Mars Hill here in Seattle, the best preparation in the world doesn't help you if the church culture is so media fixated and so committed to everyone posting everything that they feel is inspiring or candid or real that when a crisis like the Andrew Lamb disciplinary situation becoming national headlines comes up a mere blogger can trawl up such a large amount of information based on having attended multiple campuses and met multiple leaders that those people whom church PR might be trying to protect some privacy for have inadvertently given everything away through their own blog posts, tweets and other social media use.  Mars Hill was an exceptional case study in good and bad ways.  Many of its members and leaders were so prolific in using mass and social media that a lot of ultimately incriminating content in watchdog blogging terms was so readily available the leadership and the PR teams couldn't possibly purge the material as fast as alert and informed bloggers could preserve the material. 

That's not even counting the reality that people within the Mars Hill culture were actively leaking content to a couple of bloggers, of which Wenatchee The Hatchet was one. 

Writing as one of those so-called watchdog bloggers, the irony of Justin Dean's advice in "Content on Content on Content" is that what he advocates is great if you want your church in mass and social media saturation, but it was my knowledge of that hyper-saturated media and network culture at Mars Hill that allowed me to make the cumulative case that the leadership culture of Mars Hill had betrayed its first principles and had sacrificed the credibility of Mars Hill as a community on the altar of Mark Driscoll's celebrity.  During the 2013 period Mars Hill began purging its media library.  There would be a post I would write quoting Driscoll with a time stamp and a link to his content and then a week later that content would be gone and then I had to document that for the record, too.  The efforts Mars Hill undertook toward damage control ended up being more damaging to its reputation. 

The crisis Mars Hill faced in its two final years was not about a hostile secular press.  The crisis is more accurately described as an internal crisis of legitimacy.  Lower and mid-tier leadership began to lose faith that the top brass of Mars Hill were primarily concerned with the welfare of the local or regional church and had turned to making Mars Hill into a Mark Driscoll brand.  Part of this overall crisis was doubts that Mark Driscoll was being honest about the extent to which he was aware of the branding means and ends of his celebrity overtaking the well-being of Mars Hill. 

There is too much material to attempt to summarize it all but Throckmorton's leaked memo from Sutton Turner highlighted that by early 2012 even upper leadership had concerns that the media saturating and constant expansion strategy of Mars Hill was dangerously close to being fiscally insolvent.  Turner's memo mentioned a culture of entitlement in the leadership set that emanated from the top down.  There's nothing in Justin Dean's book PR Matters that would lead an uninformed reader to imagine that there was anything much wrong at Mars Hill except for maybe they took many hits from liberal, secular media. Mars Hill was a technologically driven information network, and I would also argue it was a propaganda machine and a marketing apparatus whose brand was Mark Driscoll.  Ostensibly "all about Jesus", the Jesus presented at Mars Hill was a Jesus in many respects reverse-engineered by Mark Driscoll into his conception of what masculinity should look and sound and act like.  We've discussed this at length elsewhere.   

Having chronicled the peak and decline of Mars Hill during the period of Justin Dean's tenure as public relations guru and communications lead my own conviction has been that Mars Hill lived by the mass and social media sword and died by it. Justin Dean may sincerely believe his own advice that if you're a church leader and you're not getting into public relations now that you're already losing, but Justin Dean has so far only been on public relations staff for a single church, a church whose reputation ended up with a catastrophic meltdown during Dean's tenure.  That said, anyone who perused the dauntingly large timeline of the PR scandals and fiascoes of Mars Hill could hardly fault Justin Dean for the catastrophic failure of Mars Hill.  I doubt Justin Dean is the most formidable public relations person a church could have but for those who have forgotten, Mark DeMoss was hired to do public relations for Mars Hill for six months before Mark Driscoll's resignation as documented at The Wall Street Journal. 

A church that felt a need to hire a Mark DeMoss to help manage its crisis of credibility was arguably already doomed.  Mars Hill leaders used to say the church is not a place but a people.  It is by now as obviously true that the church is a people and not a brand.  One of the core disagreements I have with Justin Dean's whole approach is that he seems to conflate the brand with a local church, arguing that if you aren't joining up in mass and social media use in the digital age you're going to lose.  Those journalists and bloggers could get you. 

But even in Dean's book there are stories that suggest that Mars Hill's own leadership was responsible for its demise. The press and the bloggers were just around to chronicle the process. There are three different ways in three different kinds of accounts in PR Matters that could highlight these weaknesses. 

The first stories that come to mind are from Chapter Three.  On pages 41-42 Dean talks about how he remembered his first day on staff at a church.  He was excited.  The role he took on was Public Relations for the church but the role would expand over the years.  He talked about how the senior pastor asked him if he was ready to strap his boots on, saying that what Dean was doing was not just a job but a calling.  Dean said the senior pastor said the office was full of people creating great content but that there was a need for people who were soldiers on the frontline.  Dean would take a lot of hits for the senior pastor and at a personal level.  That's a summary of page 41. 

Over his eighteen years as the face of Mars Hill Mark Driscoll said there was an air war and a ground war.  No one familiar with Driscoll's taxonomy of the air war of mass media and public content or the ground war of small group discussion and campus church logistics would get the impression that, given Mark's traditional air/ground divide, that Justin Dean had been hired to do any "ground war" at all.  Since Justin Dean had not worked in a PR capacity on staff before Mars Hill or after Mars Hill there's literally only one church Dean could have been talking about and the probably that this senior pastor mentioned on page 41 was someone besides Mark Driscoll seems really low. 

Perhaps a Mark Driscoll of eighteen years ago might have said that this story Justin Dean has provided suggests the possibility of a senior pastor who has gotten the air and ground war distinctions so bass-ackwards as to be beyond salvage.  Justin Dean got an altogether different impression, writing on page 42 that he walked away from his fateful first meeting with that senior pastor having a giant weight on his shoulders and a glorious sense of purpose he had never felt before. Dean wrote, "I knew God had orchestrated everything in my life up until then so that I could serve in that role." (PR Matters page 42)

By 2011 Mark Driscoll had refined his capacity to get men to feel like they were about to participate in a world-changing or at least city-changing mission, he'd been doing that since Pussified Nation led to Dead Men.  It's not too surprising if Justin Dean met Mark Driscoll and felt that he was being giving a sacred mission to handle public relations for Mars Hill.  But I was at Mars hill in the 1999-2007 period and one of the things that Justin Dean and maybe even Mark Driscoll had not counted on was that former members who had been catalyzed into that relentless sense of mission-focused diligence could one day end up being watchbloggers.  
There's a second story in chapter three that comes to mind.  Dean discusses ten traits necessary for a church communicator and one of those traits is discernment. There's a story that spans pages 45-49 in the book that correspond to  06:55 through to 13:12 in the podcast. The story itself begins at the very bottom of page 46 and at 9:15 in the podcast

on page 48 (at about 10:52 in the podcast) Dean mentions a tip from an anonymous caller who was concerned that a local lay pastor was messaging a teenage girl who was the daughter of the anonymous caller's friend. The anonymous man showed evidence that the lay pastor was in an escalatingly flirtatious online correspondence with the teenage girl.  In sum, action was taken, and Dean recounted the story as a sign that a church communicator needs to have discernment and shared how under normal circumstances there wouldn't have been a response but something felt different about this situation. 

With respect, a person could argue that there's a distinction to be made between discretion and discernment.  Discretion is arguably how Dean handled the situation he recounted; discernment would have never written and published this anecdote in a book for the record for potentially thousands of millions of people to read.  As we've established so far, the only church Dean worked on staff at in a PR capacity for was Mars Hill Church and so in sharing a story about how a lay pastor had to be removed on what was considered credible evidence of intent to seduce a minor this raises a question as to how in a church where Mark Driscoll so flamboyantly said "I see things" nobody had the discernment to pre-emptively keep a person out of ministry who maybe wasn't ready for it.  To be clear, my concern is not that what Dean said the church leadership did was bad as such, my concern is that Dean's case study for how and when and why he exercised discernment is not what I would call discernment--discretion is handling delicate situations delicately, discernment is knowing when not to bring them up.

But let’s throw a bone to Justin Dean about that, seeing as everything Matthew Paul Turner did to try to make Andrew Lamb’s story of discipline by Mars Hill anonymous also completely failed.  An object lesson from the history of Mars Hill may be that it was a culture so media savvy, full of members so eager to saturate mass and social media with their content, that when it came time for them to want things kept private they had already made that prospect altogether impossible. Justin Dean’s lesson for churches is that if you’re not playing the social media and PR game by now you’re already losing.  My own impression is that it was precisely because MH was obsessively playing the PR and media game that they made it so easy for me and for others to chronicle their pinnacle year and their subsequent demise.

So now we turn to a story from chapter six about “The Power of the Press”.  Dean shares how you should never say anything off the record and you should remember that no matter how wrapped an interview seems to be you should assume everything is for the record and that things may not be quoted in the context in which you meant them.

From pages 114-116 Dean recounted how he learned this lesson the hard way. He shares how he was working for a church that was making a bid for a huge building that was for sale near their main church campus.  It was the perfect fit for the expansion they felt they needed to do but there was a problem, when they made an offer the building was already taken. 

For those who live in Puget Sound or who chronicled the rise and fall of Mars Hill this already sounds remarkably like the ill-fated “Good for Bellevue” campaign. 

On page 115 Dean writes, “We made an offer on the building, more than they were asking, and the owner accepted it. Unfortunately, the city turned out to have a claim on the property, as it was one of several locations they had a right to seize while they planned a new maintenance facility for the mass transit train line. Even though our offer was accepted, the city blocked the sale.”

A point of clarification, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority isn’t exactly the city of Seattle or the city of Bellevue.  It’s a tri-county consortium of sorts working on a variety of projects.  As for The International Paper Building, Sound Transit got the real estate in question back in late August 2013.

Sound Transit has also been on the lookout for a large parcel of land to handle a potential rail yard when Light Rail's expansion on the eastside begins in 2017. A spokesman for Sound Transit says it began negotiations with International Paper two years ago, reaching a deal in November of 2012 that resulted in a signed purchase agreement in June this year.

The land was bought as a "protective acquisition" by the regional transit system.

"What that means is we didn't know for sure we were going to use it," said Sound Transit Spokesman Geoff Patrick. "But if we did, there is a real chance taxpayers may have to pay more if we didn't take steps to acquire it now".

The church says Sound Transit has several properties under consideration for a rail yard operations center, but the International Paper property is the "only viable option" the church has to relocate an stay in Bellevue.

But what has people talking is the church's belief that God is on their side in this dispute.

"We believe this is the property that God wants us to have," Dean said.

The Church had accused Sound Transit of taking the property by eminent domain, which Sound Transit denies. The Church has since backed down on that claim. Now the church leaders are questioning International Paper's acceptance of Sound Transit's offer.

"We bid $250,000 over Sound Transit's bid," Dean said.

In an email, a spokesman for International Paper in Memphis said that's not the case.

"We accepted the highest and best overall offer which was from Sound Transit," wrote International Paper spokesman Kyle Morgolis. "Given our confidentiality agreement, we are unable to disclose the terms of the transaction".

Dean recounts on page 115 that he and the church he worked for tried hard to show “them” that the church would be better for the community than a maintenance yard; and that there were other options for the city while the church only had one option.  No success.  In sum it would seem that Sound Transit had inked the acquisition of the International Paper building far enough in advance and with enough legal precedent that any church was behind the curve.

Considering how back in 2005 through 2006 Mars Hill elders bought what became known as the Mars Hill corporate headquarters, there’s a tragicomic irony at play here.  Mars Hill elders had already had a history of dumping money into a piece of real estate with a grand vision for its future use only to discover they had run afoul of zoning issues that made that vision moot.  In the 2006 through 2007 period the problem was they already bought the real estate and found they couldn’t use it for what Driscoll had proclaimed its future use would be in Confessions of a Reformission Rev.

With the International Paper building in Bellevue Mars Hill leaders ran into a situation where they had already lost any chance of getting the real estate around the time they expressed interest. 

So, as Dean recounts on page 116, the church decided to go public. Bereft of any legal options they went for a public relations campaign.  It would seem this was where we get to “Good for Bellevue”. By later 2013 this wouldn’t even have been the first time in recent memory that Mars Hill had run afoul of regional government. There was, after all, their eviction situation in Orange County the previous year. 

Dean describes on page 116 of PR Matters how he met with a reporter and had a thirty minute interview. At the very end of the interview he was asked a question, if he thought God wanted the church he worked for to have the building.  By now we know what Dean said. 

In Dean’s telling in PR Matters he was quickly aware he shouldn’t have said that.  If you want the full story it’s on the podcast reading of chapter 8 from 24:54 through to 30:14 and from pages 114 to the upper third of page 118 in the book. Dean recounts that his fellow staffers were bewildered by his statement to the press. Dean concludes the story on page 118 (25:41) by saying, “Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to clarify my position because the prevailing decision was to move on. We were already under a lot of pressure at the time, and frankly it marked the beginning of us giving up on the future of the church. In hindsight, we would have been selling that building a year later had we known the church would soon close.”

Writing as someone who has chronicled Mars Hill for years Justin Dean’s story can read as the admission of its public relations person to having made a snap comment without reflection that catalyzed the doom of the organization.  If the PR debacle that was the “Good for Bellevue” campaign was the beginning of the end of the leadership of Mars Hill in terms of them giving up on the future of the church then even by Justin Dean’s accounting of things nobody could just assume that Mars Hill faltered because of hostile media coverage.  Mars Hill collapsed in the wake of years of controversy about the integrity of Mark Driscoll’s intellectual property; controversy about the ethics and methodology of his leadership style; and foundational doubts about the competence of the leadership culture of Mars Hill with respect to fiscal competency and its ability to responsibly engage the legal and municipal issues of navigating church expansion in the Puget Sound area. 

This was not just a volatile question about Mars Hill during Justin Dean’s tenure as PR person at Mars Hill, it was actually one of the reasons I didn’t renew my membership in 2007; after I learned that the Mars Hill elders had sunk a lot of money into acquiring the 50th Street building without having a grasp of the zoning issues I couldn’t in good conscience stay a member of a church that would buy such a boondoggle.  Mars Hill was, arguably, in the end, taken out by the failures of its PR team and the failures of its executive leadership to have learned from even its own history of mistakes.   If Justin Dean thinks the lessons to be learned about the history of Mars Hill was they didn’t know how to handle hostile media coverage then we will likely always have a difference of conviction that that’s what the lessons to be learned are about the rise and fall of Mars Hill. I think the lessons to be learned from the demise of Mars Hill is that egotistically assuming you can win a game of PR chicken with a city like Santa or Sound Transit when you haven't been diligent enough to see if you're going for real estate you can use in the long-run or at all is a great way for a church to go down in flames when the donor base blanches for all the right reasons, especially in the wake of the leadership admitting to rigging the New York Times best seller list to promote a book that the preaching pastor made everyone go through that just recycles the same old sex shtick he'd been using for the previous fifteen years.

PR Matters is by no means a bad book.  Its prose style is adequate if never inspiring.  Dean lays out why he believes that churches making use of public relations, mass media and social media is not optional in the digital age.  If I doubt the arguments he provides it’s not because I have any reason to think he’s insincere.  He really believes what he’s selling, which is why I believe it is necessary for actual pastors to view his sales pitch with skepticism.  Justin Dean worked for Mark Driscoll, and as yet Mars Hill is the only church Justin Dean has ever worked for in a staff capacity handling public relations.  This means that for the moment any and every story he shares in PR Matters ends up being about his time at Mars Hill.  That Dean could present Mars Hill’s public relations battle with Sound Transit as if it were a battle between a church and a city is disconcerting to a Northwestern native because while he has lamented in podcast interviews the press and bloggers rarely bothered to get the facts straight there’s room to doubt whether Dean himself hasn’t been sloppy and glib with facts and details. 

It’s worth remembering that Dean’s early defense of Mars Hill in 2012 regarding the Andrew Lamb case was essentially pleading incompetence on behalf of Mars Hill’s communication culture as the reason why Andrew’s disciplinary situation had transformed into a national headline.  Justin Dean’s response was also the response of Mars Hill at an institutional level, explaining that what was intended to be read to a mere fifteen people somehow ended up posted to The City. I’ve chronicled the Mars Hill culture for years now and Dean and I are likely to never agree, but where he seems to see a former Mars Hill that was not ready to handle a hostile press I see a leadership culture that was brought down by its own hubris and incompetence.   Dean’s understanding seems to be they took too many hits from a hostile liberal and godless press. My understanding is that the super majority of the wounds their reputation took were self-inflicted. 

PR Matters is neither a great book nor a bad book.  It’s hard to shake the impression that Dean feels bad for himself and his former employer in terms of how the press and bloggers dealt with Mars Hill.  I’m not going to pretend I feel the same way.  If you read his book with a reference to theories of the press it’s possible to get a sense that a modern day megachurch PR person still believes in what used to be known as the authoritarian theory of the press even if he might not recognize that’s what he endorses.  Dean writes that the essence of public relations is that, “The key is to take control of your message at all times. Again, not to spin it or manipulate it, but to make sure people are getting it right.” (PR Matters, page 37) It’s hard to argue that this couldn’t be read as endorsing an authoritarian theory of the press, especially when it’s written by the former PR person for the former Mars Hill Church. 

I would suggest Christian and non-Christian historians with an interest in communications and media should continue to study Mars Hill.  There may be a lot to learn from the way this church crashed and burned.  Justin Dean’s book mounts an argument that your church will live or die in the digital age by whether or not it embraces the methods of social media in the digital age.  If the fate of his former employer is any indication, there may be a case to be made that Mars Hill did not die because it failed to completely embrace social media and branding and marketing techniques but because it embraced those things at the expense of retaining anything that might be considered the traditional Christian faith. 

POSTSCRIPT 03-18-2018 10:00PM

Driscoll‘s recent resignation from the church he founded was followed by another shocking announcement: Mars Hill is dissolving by year’s end, with its 11 congregations becoming independent houses of worship.
 And Vanderbloemen said that the stunning situation carries with it a plethora of lessons to be learned. “Mark stepped down at his own choice, but it wasn’t without a lot of pressure,” he said. “Mark’s departure didn’t contain any of the normal elements of a scandal.”

There wasn’t an extramarital affair nor any other explosive singular event that contributed to his downfall, he argued, calling Driscoll a “brilliant communicator.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Vanderbloemen said, noting that Driscoll ended up leaving over a wide variety of smaller infractions and debates that were perpetuated on the Internet. “We have seen a lot of guys have to leave, but never from the death of a thousand cuts that happened online.”

He continued, “There was a weird sort of perfect storm of critics and disorganization.”
In the end, Vanderbloemen said that Mars Hill grew very fast and simply wasn’t prepared for the level of expansion it experienced. As an anecdotal result, he said that churches need to do what businesses have done, drafting plans in preparation for uncertainty.

For everyone who read the extensive first prelude and saw just how many PR problems and conundrums Mars Hill faced during Justin Dean's tenure as PR person for Mars Hill, what Vanderbloemen described as "the death of a thousand cuts" that happened to Mars Hill, I submit that those cuts were not online but were internal to Mars Hill and its leadership culture and that, with a few years' time to look back on them, the majority of those cuts were self-inflicted.  The press and bloggers were just around and able to document when they happened.  I've written at this blog over the years that I said as I was parting ways with Mars Hill that I was worried they were committed to a growth plan that was financially insolvent because they were adding operational liabilities faster than they were cultivating a stable donor base; all it would take would be a stagnant period, let alone a period of numeric decline, and the church would not be able to survive as an organization.  That turns out to be what happened.  Mars Hill's leaders as a whole can't say nobody warned them that this was the path they seemed committed to.  I wasn't even the only one who privately warned that this was what I thought might kill Mars Hill.  There were others.

Having said that, there's a few key themes unite the scandals that Mars Hill found itself embroiled in.

The trademark and logo scandal highlighted that Mars Hill was willing to take legal action to preserve its branding and intellectual property in 2011, yet by late 2013 it had come to light there was reason to doubt the integrity and credibility of MH's own intellectual property.

Mars Hill had a history of running afoul of city zoning and land use codes but rather than learn from its mistakes in a way that led to more considered and careful expansion, Mars Hill leadership at the executive level seemed content to let some kind of PR brinksmanship game be the way to handle an eviction in Orange County or its failure to secure the International Paper building.  In the aforementioned case the PR brinksmanship was an ill-advised policy because by the time Mars Hill resorted to PR they had already lost the battle, and in the case of the International Paper building they had lost the battle before they even realized there might be one. 

Take either of these two persistent issues and you've got a recipe for a church death.  Combine them together and it gets worse.

Add, then, to these problems, a groundswell of objections to non-disclosure agreements required at termination or layoff; objections to what was considered deceitful and manipulative coercion of the congregation into using the teaching pastor's books as program material; and the belated discovery that Mars Hill eldership had been anywhere from confused to deceptive about the history of its internal political battles and the proverbial death of a thousand cuts online does not seem to be what happened. 

And in the midst of the Result Source controversy what did the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability say?
In 2011, outside counsel advised our marketing team to use Result Source to market the Real Marriage book and attain placement on the New York Times Bestseller list. While not uncommon or illegal, this unwise strategy is not one we had used before or since, and not one we will use again. The true cost of this endeavor was much less than what has been reported, and to be clear, all of the books purchased through this campaign have been given away or sold through normal channels. All monies from the sale of Pastor Mark’s books at Mars Hill bookstores have always gone to the church and Pastor Mark did not profit from the Real Marriage books sold either at the church or through the Result Source marketing campaign.

To correct a statement in a recent article, Pastor Sutton Turner was the General Manager, not the Executive Pastor or Executive Elder as reported, at the time he signed with the referenced agreement with Result Source. In the time since this campaign we have established a new Executive Elder team, new Board of Advisors and Accountability, as well as a new marketing team.

Mark Driscoll used to say from the pulpit that headship means it's your responsibility even when it isn't your fault.  This was a moment in which the BoAA did anything but exercise headship. They didn't grant it was their fault that someone on that BoAA signed the contract. They also didn't take ownership when they invoked "outside counsel".  What's the point of shifting the blame for something that only you could sign off on?  The BoAA statement was a masterpiece of anti-headship.

Then there's the "doesn't everybody do this stuff?" defense. Saying that Result Source wasn't illegal and it was a commonplace strategy can't really be translated any other way.  Warren Throckmorton and World magazine would eventually highlight the frequency with which it was used by Christian writers and publishers.  When in the wake of a scandal about the integrity of not just the content of Real Marriage (since it, too, was part of the plagiarism controversy that swirled around Mark Driscoll from late 2013 into 2014) was open to question, but also its method of promotion became news, the initial response of the Mars Hill BoAA was to say that, hey, this promotional method isn't illegal and lots of people use it ... though it is unwise ... now that we've been caught having used it.

Put all these trends of scandals together and the overall trend looks like a case history of a leadership team invoking a variety of double standards about what they won't accept from others that they'll let pass when done by themselves. 

With a leadership team of that sort at the top, it's hardly a surprise if thousands of people who formerly called Mars Hill home balked at the prospect of being continually asked to give sacrificially for the cause. 

POSTLUDE 1, 03-20-2018 06.50PM

One of the things that Mars Hill's leaders kept saying over and over was that Mark Driscoll had leadership in place that would hold him accountable.  When the Result Source scandal erupted the Board of Advisors and Accountability stood by their man Mark Driscoll and defended the use of Result Source as neither illegal nor unethical but unwise.  Now for those who recall that Paul Tripp resigned from the BoAA in August 2014, you may recall he wrote that he reached the conclusion that the BoAA, as designed, was incapable of doing that for which it was supposed to be existing.  In the post-Mars Hill period Sutton Turner and Justin Dean both said that Tripp was mainly absentee and not even at meetings.

But the thing is, a person could reach the conclusion that the BoAA was clearly not doing anything to hold Mark Driscoll accountable if the executive elders and former BoAA member James MacDonald were all with Mark Driscoll helping him crash the Strange Fire conference in 2013.

For those who forgot this or who currently need photographic and tweeted evidence that was all covered over here  at Wenatchee The Hatchet in June 2014.

with BoAA members like that a person could almost wonder what the difference is between that kind of on site smiling and no accountability was supposed to look like.  If Dean, as he has put it, was concerned that Tripp was hardly around for BoAA stuff, it is worth bearign in mind that if the men who were executive elders and BoAA members went with Mark to crash Strange Fire were with him regularly it hardly seems to have been much good.  It's possible to grant that for people critical of Mark Driscoll in 2013 to see the board of advisors and accountability as seeming, just on the basis of the Strange Fire stunt alone, to be more like a board of enablers and assistants whether they knew this at the time or not. 

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