Member of the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany
The public-relations activities of cults
Senator Nagel, Mr Griess, Ladies and gentlemen,
Galactic rulers, spaceships, aliens - that is how L. Ron Hubbard imagined the universe in the 1950s. The science-fiction author lived in wild fantasies and believed in a galactic ruler who – in the author’s confused imaginings – deposited umpteen million cloned Thetans on the Earth 35 trillion years ago. To top it all off, Hubbard declared his science-fiction organisation a church and himself the supreme leader of his new ‘pseudo-religion’. Scientology was born.
Ladies and gentlemen, today Hubbard would get, at most, an amused smile for such confused imaginings.
Back then, however, Hubbard had genuinely recognised the signs of the times. He had a great talent for using popular issues to ignite people’s enthusiasm, and the popular issue at that time was space travel. In this way, Hubbard presented people with role models, hopes and illusions, and bound people to him. Between the Sputnik shock and the first manned spacecraft, Hubbard laid the foundations for his world (or space) religion, which was initially based on science-fiction fantasies.
In the early seventies, when Scientology was establishing its first ‘churches’ and ‘missions’ in German-speaking countries and spreading across Europe, Neil Armstrong had recently become the first person to walk on the moon. At that time, every little boy wanted to be an astronaut; spaceships – so people imagined – would become a perfectly normal means of transport in the near future. Nothing could match the allure of space. It was this bandwagon that Hubbard jumped on with his theory about the Thetans that had been banished to the Earth from far-away galaxies. He had his finger on the pulse of the era and knew what ignited people’s enthusiasm.
Ladies and gentlemen, in public relations it is essential to understand social and psychological structures in order to be able to use them for one’s own ends. It is therefore also crucial for the public-relations activities of cults to understand and react to the signs of the times. Cults thrive because of their ability to ignite people’s enthusiasm initially and then bind them to the cult. The more enthusiasm popular issues inspire, the more easily they can be used to bind people.
Today I would like to set out various strategies employed by cults in their public-relations activities and recruitment practices. I will focus primarily on Scientology’s public-relations activities, since its PR apparatus is by far the most flexible and sophisticated.
In this context it should be clear that each cult makes use of a selection of strategies, and uses certain strategies more heavily than others during some phases. I have already mentioned that Scientology is extremely inventive in shaping its public-relations activities. Moreover, it is incredibly adaptable and has now developed a broad repertoire of recruitment and communication strategies.
Scientology thus offers a prime example of a cult’s public-relations activities: the organisation not only has a sharp instinct for social and psychological trends, it also reacts to political and legal developments – and as a group constantly operating on the margins of legality, it needs to do so.
Scientology: The emergency-relief tactic
Cults have a large box of tricks to draw on in their public-relations activities. The Scientologists in particular have made full use of them. They are masters of what I call the ‘emergency-relief tactic’. They profit from disasters by posing as altruistic relief or rescue workers.
Scientology in particular exploits suffering and hardship around the world to lure people in its ‘Volunteer Ministers’ flock to the scene and surrounding area of disasters and accidents. Their task is to support people in a wide range of situations – regardless of whether people are facing problems in everyday life, their health is suffering due to alcohol or drugs, or their lives are endangered by terrible disasters. The latter are favoured venues for Scientologists, however, as media attention is guaranteed.
For example, the ‘Volunteer Ministers’, one of Scientology’s front groups, flocked to the crash site at Ground Zero, offered their supposed help to the parents of the Beslan hostages, and cared ‘selflessly’ for tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh. Terrible events occurred in all of these places. Within a very short space of time, they were teeming with ‘Volunteer Ministers’. Of course, the Scientologists were unperturbed by the fact that they were often mistaken for genuine relief workers – such as doctors, Red Cross workers or psychologists. On the contrary: a few days after September 11, a counselling hotline was advertised in the United States using the name of a well-known charity, despite the fact that it was actually run by Scientology. This meant that people seeking help did not receive the support they needed instead, they were victimised for a second time by Scientology deceiving them.
Tragic moments when people are especially vulnerable are in this way shamelessly exploited.
Scientology’s activities in disaster zones have an enormous impact. It profits in three ways.
First, those seeking help are potential new Scientology victims. While they may have little money, they will do anything to cope with the terrible events they have just experienced. In their situation they are quickly willing to trust and to pay someone who promises to alleviate their suffering. Second, Scientology also profits from the ‘Volunteer Ministers’, who are already members. It is not enough that they are engaging in volunteer work for this self-styled religion – no, they also get to pay to attend expensive courses that supposedly help them to carry out their voluntary work even more effectively. And third, Scientology benefits immensely from the positive image of such rapid-reaction, volunteer and allegedly altruistic relief workers. Such activities are invaluable for Scientology’s public image. The media attention guarantees the desired effect on the public: devastation, suffering and children’s sad, wide eyes – these are the images that are shown on television and in newspapers following disasters. Everyone automatically reacts with sympathy. We look up to people who help in such emergencies. We respect their commitment. And before we realise it, acceptance of the yellow-clad ‘Volunteer Ministers’ – very gradually – creeps in. And so Scientology has already won half the battle with its extremely sophisticated PR.
In addition to the ‘Volunteer Ministers’, there is another front group that makes use of the emergency-relief tactic: ‘Youth for Human Rights’. Unlike the ‘Volunteer Ministers’, however, it is not immediately identifiable as a Scientology group. In fact, the German branch of Youth for Human Rights really ought to be described as a cover organisation. Nowhere in its rules and regulations or on the German website is there any reference whatsoever to its cooperation with Scientology. Only when looking at the international website does the connection to Scientology become clear.
Youth for Human Rights seeks, at least officially, to ensure respect for human rights and is targeted in particular at young people and children. Innocently trusting children and idealistic young people become active in this group without knowing its true background. Their intention is to work for a good cause. Only too late – if at all – do they realise they are being used by Scientology. Like the ‘Volunteer Ministers’, Youth for Human Rights is an attempt to enhance the Scientology brand. As Youth for Human Rights has only a concealed connection to Scientology, however, this is a latent form of public relations – very subtle efforts to change the way in which the self-styled church is perceived. Yet even without a direct connection: Scientology benefits from the positive image of Youth for Human Rights.
Links are still forged between the ‘good deeds’ of the supposed human-rights protectors and L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings, despite the lack of a direct connection. Scientology’s brand management takes place in a far more subconscious and secret way via the Youth for Human Rights than the ‘Volunteer Ministers’.
Good public relations can be recognised from the fact that normal citizens do not realise they are being influenced. That they do not recognise that their feelings towards a product or service are steadily growing more positive. That they do not notice the means being used to burn the new product image into their minds. Public relations is thus an advanced form of marketing. Scientology has – unfortunately, I must say again at this point – not only specialised in this area, but also become highly professional in it.
The tactic of political work and lobbying
The second tactic I would like to discuss is one which Scientology also employs, although from my own experience I can say that many other groups also use it – albeit less aggressively.
The second tactic is political work and lobbying.
Many cults operate on the margins of legality. They are therefore repeatedly at risk – from their perspective – of having their scope for action reduced by laws, orders or court rulings. For this reason, they constantly seek to defend and expand their scope for action. To give just a few examples: Scientology has been fighting for recognition as a religious community in Germany for years. The Moon sect has been campaigning for decades for the ban on its founder, Reverend Moon, entering the country to be lifted.
All of these aims can only be achieved at political level or through the courts. Every cult therefore needs to engage in lobbying, like a pressure group. They need to win over politicians. And they have to be convincing. Citizens and members of cults have frequently contacted me since I began dealing with the topic politically. The cult members who come to my constituency office in Hamburg or my Bundestag office usually have relatively harmless requests. But they are carrying out political PR for their cults nonetheless.
I have, for example, held – while maintaining a critical perspective – face-to-face talks with a member of the Unification Church. Since the CDU/CSU came to power, he seems to have had high hopes that I could seek to ensure that the ban on Reverend Moon and his wife entering Germany is lifted.
I consider this approach, where politicians are contacted directly with requests, to be a relatively harmless form of PR by cults. It is of far more concern when Scientology sees its new office in the capital as an ideal way to “[build] the necessary in-roads to the German parliament”, according to a recent report by the Berliner Zeitung citing an internal Scientology paper. It is quite clear that cults’ headquarters always have a representative function, are a symbol of power and – in this specific case – symbolise a determination to seek a place in Berlin’s political sphere. But the full explosiveness of this internal Scientology paper only becomes clear when a closer look is taken at the organisation’s previous attempts to infiltrate politics. After all, the establishment of the Berlin office is not the first time they have tried to bring political influence to bear. In the early 1990s, the Hamburg branch of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) underwent a crisis because Scientologists tried to infiltrate the party. Small parties are, of course, at greater risk than large parties of being infiltrated and taken over by other groups. The FDP has – like the CDU and SPD, incidentally – since incorporated an incompatibility clause in its rules. No one who is a member of one of these three parties may at the same time be a member of Scientology. In the Hamburg branch of the FDP, this requirement – often referred to as the ‘Scientology clause’ – led to several people being expelled from the party.
And so you see, ladies and gentlemen, in this area too Scientology is ahead of the pack. It knows exactly how to subtly infiltrate and influence politics. The Scientology clause enabled the political parties to safeguard themselves to some extent, but the danger for politics in general has not yet been banished.
Digression: the Scientology clause and the General Equal Treatment Act
Allow me to make a brief digression on a point that is particularly important to me in my capacity as a member of the Bundestag’s Committee on Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
The Scientology clause is repeatedly called into question for two reasons. Both its effectiveness and its legality are controversial in some respects. Regarding its effectiveness, it must be said that denying membership of this cult poses no problem for committed Scientologists. What would cause them problems is to reject L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings. We must therefore consider how the Scientology clause can be anchored in contracts or membership applications and formulated in a way that ensures its effectiveness.
I just referred to contracts that can contain Scientology clauses. Such clauses have in fact become standard in public-service employment contracts in many areas. Even the Federal Labour Court has confirmed that such clauses are lawful. And this is where my political focus on family affairs comes into play. Last year, when the Bundestag finally adopted the General Equal Treatment Act following tough negotiations in the Committee on Family Affairs, I was suddenly confronted with an old problem. After all, the new law expressly prohibited once again discrimination in working life on the basis of religion, faith or philosophy of life.
And so I wondered: is the Scientology clause even compatible with the General Equal Treatment Act? Is it even permissible for such exclusion clauses to be included in employment contracts or party rules?
Ladies and gentlemen,
A huge weight fell off my shoulders when I was assured that the General Equal Treatment Act will not change anything regarding the existing case law on the Scientology clause. The primary issue is whether Scientology is classified primarily as a religion or a commercial organisation. The Federal Labour Court clearly chose the latter, meaning that, at least in labour law, the Scientology clause is still permitted, to the best of my knowledge.
The issue of legal disputes brings us back to the tactic of political work and lobbying. Cults frequently seek to influence politics in one way or another, but equally frequently they litigate for more recognition and rights, and sue their opponents. They have a talent for putting defeats in the legal process to almost as good use for PR purposes as victories.
The Unification Church, for example, claims on its website that the ban on its founder entering the country may soon be lifted. It is true that a court ruling has stated that the confirmation of the ban must be withdrawn. However, the decision is now pending again at the Higher Administrative Court in Koblenz. In other words, no final decision has yet been taken.
But there’s more:
The Unification Church also uses press releases by the Central Office of the Protestant Church for Questions Concerning Religions and Philosophies of Life on its website; it takes quotes out of context and by doing so gives the impression that the Central Office supports the Unification Church.
Scientology uses similar tricks. It deliberately presents a false or abbreviated version of issues to make people believe that the organisation acts solely in conformity with the law.
That too is a subtle form of public relations by cults.
Celebrities and the cult of personality
The third tactic used by cults in their public-relations activities is the cult of personality, exploited by many cults. Charismatic or famous people act – or allow themselves to be used – as an advertisement for many cults. Charisma is an extremely effective element of PR. Charismatic people inspire an emotional response, act as a polarising force, and unite people.
Charismatic leaders are therefore invaluable for presentation and marketing purposes. Think, for example, of L. Ron Hubbard for Scientology or Sun Myung Moon for the Unification Church. It is – or was for a long time – these people who attracted so many people to the cult in question.
Cults who do not have – or no longer have – a charismatic leader still have the option of borrowing the limelight of others. Famous members of a cult can act as an ideal vehicle for advertising and communication.
As Scientology no longer has a charismatic leader following Hubbard’s death, it too is resorting to using celebrity members. This tactic is extremely successful for Scientology.
Actors such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley make no secret of their membership of Scientology – on the contrary. It is incorporated into their personal PR strategies and mentioned on many occasions – whether there is an upcoming wedding, which must of course be a ‘Scientological’ ceremony, or Tom Cruise is to become a father and discusses the question of whether his daughter should be raised in a ‘Scientological’ manner.
Almost every press report about him mentions that he is a member of Scientology. The organisation can be that the membership of such a major star has a positive impact on its image. For fans of Tom Cruise, the fact that their idol is a member of this cult will cause potential negative associations to be partially or completely eliminated. Scientology benefits from the actor’s position as a role model.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I will concede that this principle works only to a very limited extent in Germany. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Co. do of course have fans in Germany, too. However, these actors’ presence and thus also their influence is not as strong as in the United States.
In Germany, Scientology – and other cults – almost completely lack well-known and popular stars. The only German actor I know of who is an official member of Scientology is Franz Rampelmann. He plays bad guy Olaf Kling in the soap opera Lindenstraße. A major disadvantage for Scientology: how are they supposed to profit from an unpleasant character?
The character played by Mr Rampelmann is indeed so disliked that it would be impossible for it to have any positive effect on Scientology’s image. In addition, Franz Rampelmann is only known to the limited audience of this German soap opera. Rampelmann’s popularity in no way compares to that of Tom Cruise or John Travolta. Nonetheless, Rampelmann participates in Scientology’s public events. If he should one day play more likeable characters on television, that would undoubtedly also have a positive effect on Scientology’s image.
At the moment this is just speculation. But I can assure you that Scientology will be armed for such a turn of events and could adapt its strategy within a very short period of time. For that is the hallmark of the group’s recruitment and public-relations activities: flexibility.
In recent years, there have been two major eras in Scientology’s public-relations activities. I will only touch on them briefly here. The degree of aggressiveness shown by Scientology depends on the political and social topic concerned.
In recent months – perhaps recent years, but since the opening of its new headquarters in Berlin at the latest – Scientology has returned to its old, familiar methods of aggressive recruitment campaigns and public-relations activities.
For many years before that, all of its activities were muted, almost secret. After all, a major public-awareness campaign was held in Germany in the mid-1990s, which severely tarnished Scientology’s image.
For around ten years, Scientology only operated out of the public eye. It disappeared from public streets and squares. Public awareness had been raised – the danger seemed banished.
But Scientology was not inactive. During this period, it continued to function out of the public eye. It developed more subtle methods to repair its tarnished image – during this period, Scientology made great use of front groups with less obvious connections to it. Its approach was far more subtle than before, far more secret than before, and thus also far more dangerous than before. Scientology also let time work in its favour. And evidently this tactic worked: many of Germany’s federal States, or Länder, have halted surveillance of Scientology by their Offices for the Protection of the Constitution. The state of Berlin even lost a legal dispute about the use of informants within Scientology, following which Berlin, too, halted surveillance by its Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Scientology evidently now feels safe and strengthened, and is returning to its aggressive ways. That has become very clear in recent months, particularly in Berlin. In addition to the new Scientology headquarters, there is the fact that a number of the city’s most famous squares feature Scientology’s yellow information tents, and members offer passers-by the well-known stress test and tests using the infamous e-meter. I am astounded by the naivety and helplessness shown by the governing Berlin Senate in the face of these activities.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Allow me to summarise the main points:
Cults’ public-relations activities cover a very wide spectrum and are often nearly as professional as those of a pressure group or a large company. Cults need to master PR like a company, carry out lobbying work like a pressure group and at the same time show that its members include celebrities like TV stars and presenters. They constantly seek – in the subtle manner I have described – to enhance their public image.
Scientology uses public-relations instruments in a particularly sophisticated and skilful way. It is skilled at enhancing its image – and there are no holds barred in the process. The fact that they are targeted at children, young people and vulnerable people makes these kinds of public-relations and recruitment activities especially unethical. The weaknesses of others are shamelessly exploited and abused for the organisation’s own purposes. Those seeking help are misled and swindled out of their money.
Lades and gentlemen,
Fifty years ago, visions of space involving evil rulers may have drawn people in and enabled Scientology to build up its membership; today, however, people are focused on entirely different topics.
Groups like Scientology will perhaps soon take up environmental topics, spread their messages only via shady Internet channels or buy their way into government in a developing country.
We do not know how Scientology, the cult whose PR is the most dangerous, will act in future. All we know is that it will continue to be extremely flexible and adaptable. We must therefore continue to have the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution monitor its activities and embark on the process of introducing legislation.