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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Using Media to Get Your Story Out

Tell Your Story
Damian Gadal via Flickr

New information technologies pose new challenges and opportunities for congregations and all other institutions. While many congregations have fallen behind the times, others have found effective ways to tell their stories, reach new people and live out their mission using social media, apps, the internet, news media, music platforms, and websites.

A few examples come to mind:

  • Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and innovation leader at Life.Church, a multisite congregation based in Edmond, Oklahoma, has pioneered the missional use of technology to reach people in every country on the planet. Gruenewald oversees the church’s YouVersion Bible app, its Open Network of free online resources, its free Church Online platform for churches, and other new modes of communication.
  • Mounds Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul recently shared a wonderful story of their three congregations in one service with Minnesota Public Radio News.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) announced that it had become the first sanctuary denomination in North America and received positive press coverage.
  • Parkview Christian Church in Orland, Illinois, posted a video adaptation of Bruno Mars’ song Uptown Funk. Whether or not this is your cup of tea, it’s an effective way to communicate!

While technology is a great tool to accomplish our mission as faith-based organizations, there is, of course, a downside. The internet can take misinformation and spread it all over the world before it can be corrected or challenged. The number of clicks that an item gets sometimes matters more than accurate and ethical information. Sadly, congregations and denominations sometimes get caught in this cycle of misinformation whether they deserve the bad press or not.

Get your story out

Christa Meland, director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, offers tips to help you get your story out in an accurate and ethical way. If you are contacted by the media:

  • Contact your denominational executive and let him or her know about the situation. If you need assistance in preparing to respond, he or she will connect you with the communications specialist (if there is one) to help you develop your message.
  • Respond quickly. If the reporter didn’t let you know his or her deadline, ask what it is. You can let the reporter know you are gathering information and will get back to him or her as soon as possible.
  • Agree to be interviewed. Sometimes it’s tempting to ignore a media request. But the story will happen with or without your participation, and commenting gives you an opportunity to control part of the narrative and get accurate information out there. If you don’t participate or say, “no comment,” the story will likely say you did not return phone calls or refused to comment. This makes it look like you’re hiding something and could seriously harm your church’s reputation.
  • Try to avoid email responses. It might seem easier to respond to questions via email rather than by phone or in-person, but emails can’t convey tone, so they sometimes come across differently than they were intended. Email also makes it harder for the reporter to ask clarifying follow-up questions, which often help ensure that the reporter understands exactly what you’re trying to get across.
  • Assume everything you say is “on the record.” Anything you tell a reporter, whether by phone, email or in-person, could be used in a story—so even if you’re not in a formal interview setting, be mindful about what you say.

Prepare your message

Before you talk to a reporter, take time to prepare. Christa suggests the following steps:

Gather facts about the situation. What happened? When did it happen? How did it happen? Who was involved? What are the related policies or procedures, and were they followed? What is the impact? How are you responding to the situation and/or preventing a similar situation from happening again?

Identify a spokesperson. The spokesperson should be a key leader (pastor, member of church council, denominational executive, etc.) who is thoughtful, articulate, and feels comfortable answering questions in a compassionate, non-defensive way. Someone who is terrified at the prospect of speaking with the media isn’t the best person for the job. Pastoral, church, and denominational staff should politely but firmly direct reporters to the designated spokesperson so one person can present a clear, consistent message.

Identify key messages. Write down three key points (no more than one sentence each) that you want to convey. This list will help you stay on point and get across exactly what you want to say. When identifying your key messages, consider including:

      A statement of facts 
A summary of relevant church policies
An expression of compassion and concern for those involved
A statement of the church’s response and steps to prevent future harm

Practice your response. Before your interview, rehearse your key points. Have someone ask questions a reporter might ask so you can practice responding. No matter what you are asked, always return to one of your three key messages. Understand that the reporter will likely only use one or two sound bites, not your whole interview. Sticking to your key messages and repeating them throughout the interview will make it more likely they make it into the story.
Some phrases you can use when the reporter ask questions designed to pull you off message are, “What I can tell you is…” “The most important thing to know is…” or “I want to be clear that…” Remember, you are in control: your responses—not the reporter’s questions—will make it into the story.

Hopefully your congregation won’t experience a painful news cycle. But it’s good to have a plan in case a situation suddenly emerges that is hurtful, painful, or potentially damaging to your reputation and witness.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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