A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COMMUNICATION DEPARTMENT
The General Conference Communication department started with one man. If you were to drive to the Baltimore Cemetery today, you would find the headstone of Walter Burgan. One hundred years ago this month, the General Conference hired this man – a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper – to establish the Press Bureau, the forerunner of today’s Communication department.
On January 1, 1912, Walter Burgan began his work for the church, making the Seventh-day Adventist Church the first Protestant denomination with a formal institutional public relations program. Today, we would do well to reflect on this decision, examine why he was needed, why he in particular was hired, and how reviving this tradition at all levels of the denomination can strengthen our unity and mission.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, the Seventh-day Adventist Church vigorously resisted Sunday laws. Known as blue laws, some Adventists took a very provocative approach to defending their day of worship. On Sunday morning some would make sure they would be seen working: ostentatiously tending their fields, or chopping wood on the edge of their property, as neighbors of other denominations made their way to church. Some would even explode dynamite on their property on Sunday mornings, hoping to disrupt church services in the neighborhood.
This was not good PR! There had to be a better way of getting the church’s point across.
Denominational leaders informally organized several “press committees,” and in 1889 one of them even presented to a U.S. Congressional Committee as Congress debated a national Sunday law, which would have required businesses to close that day.
In Australia in the 1890s and in several European countries in the first decade of the twentieth century, Sunday laws were proposed, vigorously debated, and were the subject of much attention from newspapers. In 1906 Adventist leaders in Britain appointed an informal press bureau in which 55 church members were to monitor 120 leading newspapers and to exploit opportunities to present the Adventist view. It was later reported that the group was able to have published many letters to the editor and articles on the Adventist Church.
And later, in 1912, when General Conference leaders voted to establish official work with the presses, they hired a qualified person with experience in this specialized profession – the news media. This was a move of great wisdom, because press and media management is a specialized field – it has its own “language”. That was less true then than now, but was still the case even a century ago. And just as today, if one were going to do Hispanic outreach, one would hire someone who speaks Spanish, so, too, with other types of outreach: if one is going to do media outreach, one needs to hire someone who speaks that language and understands that culture.
The Review and Herald wished the newly appointed Walter Burgan well, saying that union conferences would do well to follow his advice in the workshops that he would soon be holding across North America. To quote the Review: “We have lost many opportunities to bring the message before the public by failing to utilize the various avenues open to us through the weekly and daily press. We should well improve this means of spreading truth in the future.”
Even as the General Conference Press Bureau was established, the GC president, A. G. Daniels, recalled that James White had called for such a ministry more than 30 years earlier. And Ellen White had written in the book Evangelism: “Let the press be utilized and let every advertising agency be employed that will call attention to the work. This should not be regarded as nonessential.” In the same book she also wrote: “The character and importance of our work are judged by the efforts made to bring it before the public. When these efforts are so limited, the impression is given that the message we present is not worthy of notice.
A call to action indeed.
Walter Burgan helped to secure coverage of church activities in newspapers throughout the country and offered training guides for church workers to do the same. He worked closely with the Associated Press and many magazines, especially when Adventist doctors and nurses were caught in the Ethiopian war of 1935. He also worked closely with the older Owen Troy to secure coverage of the church in African-American newspapers, including a front-page profile of an African American congregation in Chicago.
Around this time, Adventist press secretaries to be appointed overseas, starting in Argentina in 1933 and Australia in 1936.
Burgan served for 28 years, up until his death in 1940. The next director of the Press Bureau was Carlyle B. Haynes, who had worked directly with Walter Burgan. He was the pastor who brought Burgan into the denomination and the General Conference had put them to work together.
Many people consider the denomination’s public relations program to have really taken off during the tenure of the next director, in 1942 with J. R. Ferren.
Ferren worked tirelessly to convince union and conference presidents to hire only qualified people to work in press liaison: to hire those who had expertise, experience or the willingness to learn how to communicate to the public through the press. Ferren then worked to educate and further train those who were hired: he emphasized that their two greatest responsibilities were to provide the press every day with Adventist copy from the union and conference level, and to get out into the churches and find and train volunteers to do the same at the local church level.
Ferren’s plan to have a lay press secretary in every local church was given strong backing by the 1945 Autumn Council. And in 1949 a course in press relations was first offered at the Seventh-day Adventist theological seminary.
At this time, the Adventist Church’s PR program was the envy of other Protestant denominations in the United States and Canada.
Next came director Don Howard Thomas, who had established the first press bureau at a union level, in the Pacific Union Conference.
The next director, Howard B. Weeks, appointed in 1956, was a legend. He literally wrote the book on religious public relations. His book was titled Breakthrough: A Public Relations Guidebook for your Church. This volume helped to boost the profile of many Christian denominations in the public spotlight, because many of them used the book as their handbook as well.
The church increasingly developed its foray into radio and television, later establishing the Public Relations Department by merging what was the Radio Department and Television Department. It later became known as it is today as the Communication Department.
In 1975, Carol Hetzel became the director, only the second woman appointed as a Director of a General Conference department, and the first to hold the appointment in her own right, rather than as a co-appointee.
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