How opinion is formed

Discussing information, persuasion and communication over the past two odd millennia is impossible without understanding the history of western churches and the various religious upheavals associated with them.

For most PR people praying is a pastime mainly devoted to hoping their message gets used in whatever outlet they have targeted (well at least if they are sophisticated enough to avoid blanket distributions)  but for the religious praying goes hand in hand with thinking about how to persuade others to pray in the same way.

So it is not surprising that most of the really significant books about media, communication and persuasion have spent a lot of time discussing religious organisations and their activities. The immensely influential Printing Press as an agent of change by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein looked at printing’s impact on the Renaissance, the rise of modern science – and most importantly the Reformation. Indeed, it is probably reasonable to claim that without Gutenberg there would have been no Lutheran reformation. More recently Andrew Pettegree’s Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion looks at different media of conversion including the book but also drama, sermon and songs. Pettegree’s discussion is, though, more robust in terms of the impact of street theatre than that of Keith Windschuttle who (as the blog loves to mention) believed street theatre would be an answer to media monopolies back in his days as a Maoist media analyst.

Now we have another important book, From Jesus to the Internet: A history of Christianity and Media by Professor Peter Horsfield. The book will be launched at the RMIT’s School of Media and Communication Centre for Communication Politics and Culture on June 17 followed by a guest lecture by Monash University’s Greg Barton on Faith, Fundamentalism, Secularity and the Media and a panel discussion.

From Jesus to the Internet looks at Christianity and the media from both the perspectives of how Christians used media (from oral tales to manuscripts through the printed book to TV evangelism and the Internet) to proselytise and how Christian proselytising also shaped the form and use of those media. It’s a fascinating story which not only has a wide historical scope but also places the story within various theoretical frameworks which inform media analysis. The blog was lucky enough to read the book in manuscript and can strongly recommend it.

The book also highlights the fact that some of the best books about PR are not about PR as such but instead look at communications in a wider sense and wider context. The work of Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Burke and others are in this respect as important and as illuminating as Marshall McLuhan’s insights into media and messages. One of the blog’s favourite non-PR PR books is Umberto Eco’s Faith in Fakes and its concept of hyperreality and the relative credibility of the fake and the authentic. Interestingly Ronald Hingley’s book, Hadrian’s Wall: A life, illustrates how the fake becomes more real than the real through the archaeological work, reconstruction and perception of the Wall’s purposes.

Much of what we think about the Wall is wrong. For a start it’s not the border between England and Scotland; it wasn’t apparently designed to keep people out but clearly was very porous; and, to the horror of UKIPers who want a wall against immigrants it was probably, thanks partly to the Roman legions stationed there, the centre of one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan communities in British history –  more inclusive than exclusive. The reconstruction of the South Shields gateway followed analysis of evidence derived from Africa, especially Libya, and “had an external façade….designed to look authentic, but the building of the underlying structure utilised modern techniques and materials, particularly concrete. The interior arrangements of the spaces within the gateway also had to be modified for fire and safety regulations…”  evoking memories of Cathy Gere’s description of the Knossos Palace as being the first reinforced concrete building to be erected on Crete – built by Arthur Evans over 25 years.

Hingley also points out that the reconstruction of Vindolanda, like South Shields, is problematically recreated on the actual archaeological sites and that the “concept of ‘authentic’ may be imbued with different meanings” depending on the state of understanding of the archaeological evidence at any point. Popular culture is also important and the marketing of the Wallsend Roman fort and visitor centre was heavily influenced by the release of Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, at the time of the centre’s opening.  Scott grew up near Wallsend although the ‘Rome’ in the film is actually a “17th century Spanish fort on Malta (rebuilt by Napoleon in classical style)” and enhanced by computer-generated effects based on buildings around Europe.

Nevertheless straight PR books by eminent scholars ought not be ignored – even if the next book anyone interested in PR and communications should read is From Jesus to the Internet. To that end the blog recommends looking out for the fourth edition of Anne Gregory’s Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns. It’s a very practical blueprint and is available from . Australian readers can get special 15% discount if they order the book in the next few months. So -even if you have read earlier editions make it the second book on communications you read in the next few months.