Truth and Belief

13 years ago

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Philip Sheppard ponders the ethical challenges that arise when promoting faith-based tourism, exploring what may or may not conflict with IPRA Codes.



I would like to share with you some of the fascinating discussions I had recently at a seminar with PR academics and theologians at the University of Stirling in Scotland. The discussion covered the growing area of religious and faith-based tourism and its promotion.

In my intervention I considered the application of the codes of Athens and Venice to this type of promotion and discovered it opened up more questions than it answered.

Our code of ethical conduct the Code of Athens states in article 10 that an IPRA member shall refrain from "subordinating the truth to other requirements" and in article 11 shall refrain from "circulating information which is not based on established and ascertainable facts". Moreover article 3 of the Code of Venice requires an IPRA member to "not intentionally disseminate false or misleading information." So what happens when we apply this to religious promotion?

Is Promotion Ethical When There’s Doubt?

As the theologians agreed, there is doubt among historians about Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. The Gospel writers had no idea where Jesus was born, writing as they did many years after his death. But they did know of the Old Testament prophesy in Micah 5:2 "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, ... out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel".

John’s Gospel tells us he was not born in Bethlehem and Luke gets his Nazareth-living parents to travel to Bethlehem by saying that for a Roman tax census everyone had to go to their own city and that Mary and Joseph "being of the House of David had to go to the city of David being Bethlehem". So far so logical until you spot, as the author A N Wilson (my ex-classics teacher) has, that David lived 1,000 years before they did. So the census required them to go to a remote ancestor’s town.

Where does this leave us? It is an act of faith to say that Christ was born in Bethlehem. So as an ethical code-abiding PR practitioner may I say this or only use ascertainable facts by promoting visits to the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem instead?

How Not to do it

Suppose I want, to take another Christian example, to promote Lourdes. Here is what one Internet site says: "Lourdes, France is a bustling Pyrenees village, best known for famous Virgin Mary sightings." Note the plural and present tense. They seem to be using the language of the safari park not a faith-based pilgrimage!

Suppose I am asked to promote a Hindu religious site. To say, "Bathe in the Holy waters of the Ganges at Benares" seems fact-based enough. But what about this caution from the Sanchat Mochan foundation in Benares itself: "Untreated raw sewage enters the river at Varanasi" (Benares) and "faecal coliform levels in the Ganges are far above what would be considered safe for bathing or drinking".

Should a PR agency refuse a client for religious tourism? Might a PR company make such a refusal as they might for a tobacco company? In the tobacco case, the agency may feel the promotion of a substance with a potential to injure heath is unethical, and so they make a choice. But what if I feel any one religion is unethical or different to mine? Should I forego the commission?

And where does the truth lie? If I am committed to my faith and I am a PR practitioner, can I then ethically promote the faith-based concepts as truth? And If I can but my boss is a humanist, what then?

Just use Good Writing

Much religious tourism involves the curious lure of relics of Saints and other holy men. This reminds me of that great travel writer H V Morton and his description in his book of 1964 A Traveller in Italy of the Bones of St Ambrose: "The verger of the Milan Basilica unlocked the alter piece in four places and with four different keys: and this was then revealed as four painted steel panels which he cranked down into hidden slots. As he did so he revealed the objects they had concealed. As they came into view, old women crossed themselves. Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side upon a bed within a crystal shrine. The central figure was the bones of St Ambrose."

This is better, it’s a wonderful description. What more promotion need one do?

As Old as Time

Perhaps the final word should pay homage to the fact that we in PR are the new boys and girls on the block. Consider the history of the Christian pilgrimage to Compostela in Northern Spain and the relics of St. James in the cathedral there.

The Christian Bible tells us that St James was beheaded in Jerusalem around AD 42 after annoying King Herod Agrippa I. His body was subsequently discovered in AD 813 in Spain in Galicia at Iria Flavia. But how he got from Jerusalem to there is unknown.

A parchment found with the body is a key reference. It came at a convenient moment in Christian Spanish history. The discovery of the relics provided a rallying point for Christian Spain, then confined to a narrow strip at the north of the Iberian Peninsula, most of which was occupied at that time by the Moors. Upon this uncertain foundation, one of Christianity’s longest lasting tourist trails has been built. That the trail is both inspirational and has led to the creation of some magnificent architecture is beyond doubt.

How its promotion today, along with the promotion of all faith-based sites, can be done in a way compatible with the codes of Athens and Venice is the challenge.


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The Author

Philip Sheppard

Philip Sheppard is IPRA President for 2007.

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