The Church of Scientology is planning a publicity drive in Australia to challenge what it calls “misconceptions” among the public and the media.
The controversial religious group kicked off a PR drive with an appearance on Seven breakfast show Sunrise last week, although the interview with church spokeswoman Virginia Stewart was cut short to make way for a live cross with opposition leader Tony Abbott.
The Sunrise interview was prompted by the publication of a guide for journalists that outlined the areas where the organisation feels it has been wrongly represented in the past.
Among the criticisms levelled at Scientology in recent years are that it is secretive, controlling and believes humans are descended from aliens – all allegations that the church strongly refutes.
The Church of Scientology plans to launch a localised version of a US-made TV ad that ran around the Super Bowl, direct marketing activity to promote its videos and books, and encourage people to visit its churches to learn about Scientology for themselves.
The TV ad bears similarities to Apple’s ‘Think different’ classic from 1997, a poster on social content site Buzzfeed pointed out earlier this week.
The church is also planning to create short films to explain the thinking behind Scientology as well as producing booklets and DVDs to outline the social programs the group sponsors.
The church will not use a creative agency in Australia, and will produce much of its advertising in-house; it declined to reveal its marketing budget.
Scientology has used PR agency Wells Haslem since 2009, the year that Scientology was branded a “criminal organisation” by South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.
A year later, Scientologists turned to above-the-line advertising to improve the church’s image, using media agency Frontier Media. However, the church’s media push did not go ahead as planned.
Frontier’s media director Mark O’Brien told Mumbrella: “Several years ago The Church of Scientology engaged us on a project to develop a media plan. After completing it, they took the plan and executed it through their marketing team in the US, without paying us for it. Fair to say, we haven’t worked with them since,” he said.
The Church of Scientology said it was “surprised” by Frontier Media’s allegation, since it had not been contacted by the agency regarding payment, and had not been sent an invoice.
“Frontier Media’s plan was very good and we would highly recommend them to others, however it was decided at that time that TV advertising on major networks was not feasible and the plan was shelved,” a Scientology spokeswoman said. “We would have loved the ad campaign, but it did not go anywhere and absolutely was not used anywhere else.”
“Our ads have not appeared on the major networks since this time, which was the major part of Frontier Media’s plan. The Church of Scientology International has been running online media (internationally) for some years now without our input,” she added.
Scientology does not currently use a media agency in Australia.
Much of the focus of the church’s communications plans this year will be on its uneasy relationship with the media. Stewart is concerned that “absurdities” written about Scientology are becoming more extreme.
“The tabloids have tended to dominate the main media lines – maybe due in part to their insatiable desire to chronicle the lives of celebrities and, with reality TV coming to the fore, the absurdities which appear in print have increased,” she told Mumbrella.
The image of Scientology is regularly brought into the media spotlight by celebrity believers in the US such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and in Australia by singer Kate Ceberano and – for a time – media mogul James Packer, the Sun-Herald reported in 2002.
Women’s Day article on Scientology
Women’s magazines in Australia are often to blame for Scientology’s bad reputation, due to poor reporting, Stewart claimed.
“Pick up any women’s magazine – they are gossipy, rumour-heavy and nearly always wrong about us. They do not contact the Church for comment or to visit or tour and most of the stories simply come from some overseas ‘source’,” she said.
Social media has made matters worse for brand Scientology, Stewart added.
“The rapid 24-hours news cycle has made proper research and detailed interviews increasingly rare. Before we would be interviewed and asked for a response. Now, frequently, stories are printed without fact checking and with no response sought from the Church,” she said.
One of the criticisms made about Scientology is that the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, believed humans are descended from aliens – an assertion that entered the popular consciousness through the now classic episode of South Park, ‘Trapped in the Closet’.
“As pointed out in the media guide, we don’t believe we come from aliens,” Stewart said. “This is just said to ridicule, and has only recently been added to the common misconceptions about Scientology.”
The media guide reads:
Like other religions, Scientology will not enter into a debate concerning the validity of our beliefs, however this one is easily corrected. Scientology has no religious belief that we are descended from aliens or have aliens living inside us.
Stewart said: “We believe that man is an immortal spiritual being. His experience extends well beyond a single lifetime,” referring to one of Scientology’s videos, ‘The parts of man’.
Another criticism is that Scientology is controlling of its members, and dictates their life choices.
“Scientology is unique in that it does not require or tell anyone to ‘believe’ anything,” said Stewart. “Rather, Scientology believes every individual should think for themselves.”
Scientology has also been labelled secretive.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Stewart. “In fact, we seek freedom for the individual, we are always open and any person is welcome any time to come in and avail themselves of our courses and counselling,” she said.
This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.