For years, any gauge of local media in the central Brazilian state of Goiás would indicate the Seventh-day Adventist Church hardly existed. Mention of the church in newspapers and television reports was nearly absent.
Almost overnight that changed, with the press reporting on the Adventist Church's activities, including its anti-smoking initiatives, children's camps and abuse awareness campaigns.
The difference was Francis Matos. In 2007, church administrators in Central Brazil hired the former newspaper editor to serve as a media relations spokesperson. Now, each year they can trace as many as 50 media mentions to her work.
The Adventist Church in South America in the past eight years has increasingly hired journalists such as Matos to serve as public relations professionals, who keep members informed of news through Web sites and newsletters, as well as present the church to the public.
Though not directly considered evangelism, building a positive media presence often increases the chances of a community member seeking further contact with the church.
"The church here knows it needs professionals doing this," said Felipe Lemos, a media relations spokesperson for the church's South American region. A former newspaper reporter, Lemos spoke to ANN last month during the first meeting of the church's Communication associates in South America.
The four-day meeting was comprised of 25 women and 19 men who are experienced newswriters, political spokespersons, television producers and recent communication graduates. Nearly all are in their late 20s and early 30s and have taken a pay cut compared to previous employment. Some earn extra money writing freelance for other publications.
Ágatha Lemos, a former newspaper editor and press aide for a city council member, still writes for an architecture magazine in addition to her job as a Communication associate for the church in South São Paulo. Her department of three employees offers services to help promote other church departments, including Education, Ministerial and Youth.
"I like seeing the church grow because of how we can help," Lemos said.
Worldwide, the denomination's commitment to communication varies. In some areas, Communication directors lack training and experience or have to oversee several administrative departments. Regions with developed communication programs and trained communicators can more effectively present a coordinated message, advertising campaign or positively portray the church to their communities. A few church administrative regions have even boosted the Communication director's role, giving them the title Assistant to the President for Communication, similar to a vice president of public relations in a corporation.
In South America, the increased communication commitment may stem in part from the fact that journalism is now an acceptable church profession, something members frowned upon decades ago. Some church leaders remember the unstated emphasis on church professions, in order of importance: pastor, accountant, teacher and health care professional.
"For a long time, this was the pattern around the world," Agustin Galicia, associate secretary for the Adventist world church, said with half a chuckle in his office recently.
Now, more administrations are realizing that specialized professions will enhance the church's mission. To support pastors, teachers and doctors, corresponding churches, schools and hospitals need qualified support staff, such as public relations professionals and lawyers, among others.
The denomination's communication roots were set in 1912 when the Adventist world church headquarters in Maryland, United States hired Walter Burgan, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, to establish the denomination's Bureau of Press Relations, the precursor to today's Communication department.
Today, many are urging the church to re-discover its roots and hire qualified professionals to fill communication roles in the denomination, an organization with some $20 billion of assets in 203 countries. Some world church regions have yet to recognize the necessity of corporate communication management.
"What we are seeing in South America is deliberately planned and put into action," said Rajmund Dabrowski, Communication director for the Adventist world church. "As result, one can see a change in public attitudes toward Adventists, and also more church members are better informed and are becoming more effective in their witness."
Rubén Gelhorn, the public relations director at River Plate Adventist University in Argentina, said he is encouraged by the church hiring journalists and public relations professionals for its Communication departments, but the church could increase its communication commitment even faster.
Gelhorn, who holds a doctorate in religion and media, said some other denominations are ahead of the Adventist Church in how they let their members and the community know of church events through corporate communication.
"We might think they have less light, but maybe we could learn from them in how to manage some aspects of communication," Gelhorn said.
--Ana Paula Ramos and Suellen Timm contributed to this story