How to "do God" and survive - Kate Forbes's considered communications

15 March 2023  |  Insights
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When conservative Christian Kate Forbes announced her bid for first minister of Scotland, it looked likely that her political ambitions were going to come to a swift and sticky end.

Media questioning on her views on sex and sexuality: check.

Days of public and media outcry about whether her religious beliefs should exclude her from high political office: check.

She seemed on track to experience what journalists call the “Tim Farron effect” – the public hounding of a senior politician holding traditional Christian views.

Farron resigned his post as leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2017 after being repeatedly questioned about his beliefs on homosexuality.

It’s not limited to the political sphere, or the UK either – in Australia last October, Andrew Thorburn resigned from his new role as CEO of AFL club Essendon Bombers after facing public outcry because he was also chairman of a church that teaches orthodox views on theology.

Thorburn said after his resignation, “It became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many.”

It seems Tony Blair’s spokesman Alistair Campbell had a valid point when he famously told the media: “we don’t do God,” which he later explained “was simply part of a view that in UK politics, it is always quite dangerous to mix religion and politics, not least because the electorate are not keen on it, and the media and politicians tend to misrepresent it whenever it happens.”

And yet, Forbes has held her own in the race for leadership of the liberal SNP despite openly doing God. The Times labelled her “the contest’s great survivor” and as the race draws to a close, polling indicates that the Scottish public is more favourable towards her than her closest rival Humza Yousaf.

In an article for Premier Christianity about the furore, Tim Farron said he believes her ability to ride the wave of scrutiny about her beliefs showed a wisdom in managing media questions that he feels he lacked during the backlash on his comments.

Whether you or your organisation holds the same views on sexuality as Forbes or not, if you’re a Christian speaking out in the media, you can expect to face challenging questions – and there are a few lessons from her approach to media interviews that can help you handle these well.

1. Know what you want to say – and why

When we’re preparing our clients for media interviews, we will take time to predict the questions they are most likely to be asked and encourage them to carefully consider what they will say in response.

As a conservative Christian with ambition for a senior political role, Kate Forbes will have known she was likely to be challenged about her beliefs, so she had obviously prepared for this and considered what she would say when asked.

She told Tim Farron in an interview for his podcast, A Mucky Business, how she prepares for these questions:

“The first step is to know what you believe and why. Those of us in the Church, or with Christian friends, often just accept truth without ever querying it.

“It’s a lot easier to defend a position that you inherently believe than a position you just think Christians should hold.”

2. Honesty is the best policy

In a media-saturated society, audiences can spot when interviewees are trying to dodge trouble.

The court of public opinion does not take kindly to politicians who prevaricate or try to avoid telling the truth in media interviews – and over the past few years, that’s proved to be a lot of them.

When Tim Farron was first asked about his beliefs on sexuality, he came across as evasive. He believes Kate Forbes’ stance has and will serve her better.

“Kate Forbes clearly decided that she didn’t want to re-create my ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look, and I think she has been incredibly brave in her decision to lay all her cards on the table at the outset,” he told Premier Christianity.

“The public is always calling on politicians to be more honest, to not side-step tricky questions and to say what they actually think.”

3. Seek connection with the people you’re trying to reach

We all tend to function in some kind of bubble – an echo chamber full of people with similar interests or beliefs – and it affects the way we communicate.

From using jargon to blindly assuming that your audience is on the same page as you, it’s easy to alienate people if you don’t make a deliberate, conscious effort to connect with them.

Listening to your audiences, researching their interests and the language they use and deliberately sense-checking your messages can help you reach them more effectively.

Forbes put it this way in her A Mucky Business interview: “You’ve got to figure out how to build a bridge to your listeners… if it doesn’t resonate with them, then it’s not going to make sense on a podcast or in a media interview.”

“What is the world out there hearing when we speak? You’ve got to make sure they’re hearing what you intend to say, rather than hearing something because of all the baggage and filtering that goes on with Christian views.

“And just practise!”

Whether the SNP membership can ultimately tolerate Kate Forbes’ views or not is yet to be seen. But her survival so far illustrates that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that matters.

Communicating into a secular culture from a position of faith will always be a challenging task, but by showing integrity, honesty and seeking connection with those around us, Christians can seek to live out their beliefs in the public square rather than just preach them.

It’s good communications – and good Christian practice, too.

By Charis Gibson, Director of Communications, Jersey Road PR

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