In 2010 the Church of Scientology bought a historic building in Plymouth (in the UK). There is currently an ongoing campaign to persuade local government to refuse them permission to renovate it and use it as an ‘Ideal Org’. You can follow the campaign via this blog.
So far, the campaign has included a public meeting to put the case to local residents. The local newspaper attended, and took some photographs, which were included in a sympathetic article. This appeared in both the printed and online versions of the Plymouth Herald.
It seems that somebody downloaded one of these photographs from the online article and posted it on the Google Maps page for the Church of Scientology in Plymouth (which invites you to add pictures and reviews). A campaigner noticed this, and posted some more, not only only on the listing belonging to the Plymouth site, but also more than 80 others, internationally.
He expected these images to be taken down when they were noticed. What nobody realised at the time was that these sites are owned and operated by Google Maps, not the Church of Scientology. The owners can put up a link to their website, but that’s about it. Pictures and reviews cannot be removed by Scientologists – only Google can do this, and only if they violate their terms of service. The images have stayed put.
A week later, the campaigner received a message from his Google account (image right). These pictures had received 5,000 views. They are now approaching 10,000. That’s one person.
I initially thought that it was interesting and amusing that one man could give such a powerful organisation a black eye in this way. I now realise that his actions have more serious (and interesting) consequences for the Church of Scientology in Plymouth – and the whole world.
Scientology in Plymouth Shoots Itself in the Foot
Plymouth Scientologists apparently tried to remove the posted images. When they found they couldn’t, they closed the site. Presumably they thought that this would delete all of the content, and then they could start afresh with a blank slate.
What actually happened is that Google recorded their business as “permanently closed,” but left the page up. The Church of Scientology in Plymouth is now going to have a hard time explaining to Google why they lied about closing, and probably aren’t going to recover control of the site for some time. This situation is explained in much more detail here.
When I first described this disaster (which the Church of Scientology brought upon itself) I didn’t realise the full implications. These have since been explained to me by an insider.
How Does This Effect Scientology’s Income, and their Ability to Recruit?
Let’s consider what this blunder means for the scruffy Church of Scientology site in Plymouth.
Their only legitimate sources of income are from Scientologists who make ‘fixed donations’ for ‘Scientology services’ – that is, pay to take the series of (progressively more expensive) courses which make up Scientology practice.
Currently, there are less than 30 practising Scientologist in the whole South-west of England, and the Ebrington Street site is their nearest Scientology church.
Around half these people are ‘staff’ who work for the church. This big building includes a shopfront, and is in a street close to the university and to retail areas The rent is not cheap, and they have other expenses (water, electricity, local business taxes &c).
Plymouth’s Scientologists must be finding it difficult to make ends meet. They desperately need to recruit new members, just to pay the bills.
They used to be able to recruit in three main ways:
- With a ‘stress test’ handcart, laden with Scientology books (which they sold) and an e-meter. People would be ‘tested’ on the meter and encouraged to take a ‘free personality test’ back at the church
- By handing out various leaflets in the nearby City Centre. Anyone who has tried to promote a business in this way knows that printing is expensive and the success rate for leaflets is typically 4-5%. The overwhelming majority of leaflets go right in the bin. To get one or two people into the shop every week, they have to hand out 5 – 7 thousand every week. that’s a big drain on money and volunteer resources.
- Putting various leaflets through letterboxes and (occasionally) posting letters to people who have contacted the church in the past, whose addresses are held in files stored in the churches. Again, this is a very inefficient, labour intensive approach.
The handcart is no more – but that’s part of another story, which I will cover at a later date. They can’t use the Internet, because webpages are provided by the headquarters organisation (rather like a fast food franchise) and Scientology HQ is unresponsive to local needs.
Leaflets and Letters are now Counter-productive
These days, anyone who is looking for their local church will likely consult Google for directions (and maybe some background information).
When they enter keywords like ‘Scientology Plymouth’ or ‘Scientology Dublin’ into Google it provides a sidebar (to the right of their search results) containing a google maps listing like the one above and the one on the left.
This helpfully gives directions (including a sat-nav option). However, the first thing you notice about the listing is a poster reading, “Scientology Slave Labour Child Labour True or false”. Then, you see that the place is flagged (in red) as “Permanently Closed”.
A reasonable person might conclude that this business has been closed down after some controversy. It’s very unlikely that they are going to turn up after seeing this.
Scientology in Plymouth now has a serious problem. They have no choice but to hand out more and more leaflets and post more letters in an attempt to recruit new members. Those leaflets lead people to a web listing that looks very suspicious and tells them that the business is closed. Their promotional efforts are now counter-productive.
From the point of view of the potential recruit, Scientologists on the street are trying to draw them in, but on the Internet, Scientology listings are turning them away. Who is going to take a organisation that behaves like this seriously?
It initially looked to me like a daft shambles. Now I realise that it is causing the Church of Scientology in Plymouth major pain.