Scientology officials have gotten smarter about public relations, but they shouldn’t be surprised that most local residents still remember their past tactics.
St. Petersburg Times, June 9, 2003 (A Times Editorial)
Many Pinellas County residents know the story of how the Church of Scientology slipped into Pinellas under a different name in 1975 and began buying property in downtown Clearwater, where it established its international religious retreat known as Flag. They remember the clashes that followed between Clearwater city officials and Scientology, the church’s penchant for secrecy and the disinformation campaign hatched by the organization to discredit a city official who opposed Scientology.
They also know something about the origins of Scientology: that it was created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, that some of its teachings are based on Hubbard’s theory that harmful “engrams” or painful memories were planted in the brains of earthlings, and that Scientologists pay thousands of dollars to be purged of those negative feelings through church-designed counseling known as “auditing.”
Many Pinellas residents also remember hearing that a member of the Church of Scientology, Lisa McPherson, died in 1995 after being kept in the care of staffers in the church’s Fort Harrison building.
Because they know all that, some of them have strong opinions about Scientology, and it should come as no surprise that many of those opinions are negative. What is surprising, given the history of the church in Pinellas, is that Scientology officials are shocked by how many Pinellas residents distrust or dislike their organization.
What did they expect?
The church recently hired professional researchers to survey 300 shoppers at a St. Petersburg mall to learn their opinions of Scientology, Flag and the McPherson case. The results: Four out of five people questioned had something negative to say. They freely used words like “cult,” “scam,” “strange” and “brainwashing.”
Since getting the results, the church has asked for a change of venue in an upcoming jury trial that peripherally involves aspects of the McPherson case. The church’s motion for the venue change is filled with accusations about the “religious bigotry” of the Pinellas population and “hate-mongering” by local media, including the St. Petersburg Times. The church claims that the media have poisoned the public’s view of Scientology. The motion implies that neither the news coverage nor the public’s negative perception is warranted.
The truth of the matter is that most residents of Pinellas County are neither misled nor confused about Scientology. What they are is well-informed, and they have good memories. They see not just the dressed-up image the church has displayed since getting smarter about public relations a few years ago, but also the years of shenanigans that preceded the change.
Church officials apparently thought they had made more progress at changing perceptions, especially in Clearwater. And indeed, Clearwater officials have forged a cooperative relationship with Scientology, in some cases accepting campaign support and assistance from church members, bestowing awards on the church and even inviting church officials’ participation in city government affairs.
While constant conflict between Clearwater officials and Scientology would serve no good purpose, there are hazards in becoming too accepting, including failing to represent the majority public view of the church and forgetting that skepticism is warranted when it comes to Scientology.
Some Tampa Bay area public figures who lately have sounded like supporters and defenders of the church – including Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala and political consultant Mary Repper – should know of those hazards. So should Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who accepted campaign support from Scientologists earlier this year and recently had dinner with actor Tom Cruise, a celebrity Scientologist, at Repper’s house.
Perhaps it was the city of Clearwater’s accommodating attitude that recently led the church to believe it had the standing to start recruiting national retailers to downtown Clearwater. Such recruitment campaigns are traditionally government’s role; indeed, Clearwater has such a campaign under way now. Despite that, the church prepared a brochure spotlighting the city’s demographics and benefits (including a section touting the positive presence of the Church of Scientology downtown) and sent it to retailers such as the Gap and Banana Republic. Because no author is listed, the brochure promotes the mistaken impression that it comes from city government. Yet asked about this presumptuousness by the church, Mayor Brian Aungst said merely, “I don’t know that it hurts anything. It’s probably helpful, but we’ll find out.”
Clearwater officials would do well to review the results of the Scientology survey and consider whether an informed and wary public would be comfortable seeing them hold hands with the Church of Scientology.
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