The 84 year-old preacher and activist from Topeka, Kansas leaves behind a career largely characterized by his reliance on the media to publicize his wretched theology. During his six decade reign over the church, Phelps became a savvy media strategist and wove that identity into the fabric of his organization. As the world bids good riddance to Pastor Fred, the public relations community has an opportunity reflect on the important lessons he left behind.
Simplify your message.
With his shock slogan “God hates fags,” Phelps crafted a phrase that became a magnet to media attention and summarized the core values of his brand. In an online video, Phelps describes those three words as “a profound theological statement” and goes on to say “each word of it is pregnant with powerful meaning.” They represent his much broader view that America is doomed for accepting homosexuality and defending the rights of the GLBT community. By simplifying his message with those three words, he promoted his beliefs while evoking a potent reaction from the media and the public alike.
Connect to current events.
The WBC first gained national notoriety in 1998 when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student from the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered for his sexual orientation. By linking their core ideology to this event through protest, they gained national exposure that jumpstarted their media engagement at subsequent protests. They have generated national media exposure at a number of other funerals including that of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Edwards, Jerry Falwell, and American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the WBC website, the group has picketed 52,357 events to date. The protests were not always well attended, particularly early on. Phelps never let the low-turnouts or lack of coverage discourage his efforts as he methodically led his group to high profile funerals and other events. Through those persistent efforts to spread their message, their tactics are now so well-known that they are almost certain to generate media coverage. In some instances, such as Sandy Hook, the family attracted media coverage through mere speculation that they would protest, when in fact they did not.
Know the rules.
Phelps had a deep understanding of his First Amendment rights as well as the nuances of local laws and ordinances pertaining to WBC protest locations. He leveraged those legal protections to maximize his group’s exposure at each picket location. When necessary, he enlisted the help of the ACLU and other government watchdogs to ensure that his First Amendment rights were not abridged when lawmakers and officials attempted to create barriers for their efforts.
Evolve and adapt.
While Phelps’s religious beliefs failed to evolve, his media tactics certainly did since the founding of the church in 1955. The church has historically been an early adapter to digital media platforms. The WBC website, which was famously hacked in 2011, generates over 23,000 unique visitors each month base on Alexa.com findings. The site has a comprehensive and steady stream of written content, pictures, audio and video. They also supplement their traditional media efforts by publishing all of their press releases on the site along with their picket schedule. The church even has a Vine account that is actually quite entertaining.
Fred Phelps used his PR talents to torment grieving families and broadcast his hateful theology. His efforts united Republicans and Democrats, believers and nonbelievers in their utter disdain of his beliefs and tactics. While the world is unlikely to mourn the loss of Mr. Phelps, his plethora of media victories and infamy will not soon be forgotten.
Brian Hart is an Account Executive at Jennifer Connelly Public Relations (JCPR). Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianHartPR.