Working with Members of the Media
In ministry today there are basically two viewpoints most churches have of the press. The first is that the press is the enemy. They are out to find something wrong, stir up trouble, misrepresent, misreport and generally persecute any organization that is connected in any way with Jesus Christ. The other view is that the press is a source of free publicity. A well managed effort on the part of the church can yield a boatload of positive ink and television time as opposed to spending money on advertising.
In reality neither of these views is true, much less a sound foundational philosophy that should apply to working with the press. The process should be termed working with the press–and I use the word “working” specifically, is markedly different than “dealing” with the press, or “avoiding” or “tolerating” or any other less-than-honest verb you could use.
Building relationships. First, working with the press means establishing relationships. Any relationship will mean an investment in time. Relationships with the press means regular contact, usually in a proactive manner. Whether through phone, email or fax, take the time to submit information to the press regularly. Write and send press releases often. Much of what you pass along will not receive a response, but it will establish a pattern of behavior between you and the media. It will also make clear that you serve as either spokesperson or primary press contact for your church.
Beyond press releases and emails, take the additional step of talking to members of the media one-on-one if possible. Make it a habit to call regularly. Even set up a press luncheon or event if you have the resources. In these conversations, you ask the questions. Find out more about each organization, what kinds of stories they are looking for, the criteria by which news is judged. You will not only learn how you can help the press accomplish their job, but your will gain an understanding of how they view you and your church.
Far and away the main reason we enjoy good press as a church is because of our relationships with the media. We know them by name, we converse with them regularly, and we keep them updated on what is happening at our church. You will only get as much out of any relationship as they time and energy you invest in it. I believe building ties with the press is worth the investment.
Anticipating issues. You will at some point have “issues” in your church that grab the attention of the press. These can be positive, but not always. No church is immune to negative events or news. Do not wait until the press contacts you about an issue or controversy to determine a course of action. This is a difficult and delicate area, because the temptation is to just “be quiet” and hope that a negative issue does not “blow up” into a public matter. Determine your process for response ahead of time and write it into a media plan. Know who will speak for the church and how they are to conduct themselves in a crisis, or even if you are asked for a comment.
Our criteria are simple. First, we respect the privacy of our members and guests–we simply don’t comment on a member’s individual actions, ever. And we almost never allow the press onto our campus to get “candid responses” from our members on any issue unless we can exercise a very high degree of supervision. We also, in general, decline comment on “public debate” like court decisions or social issues, unless we have a ministry in place that addresses the issue in a Christ-honoring fashion.
If there is an obvious place where something related to the church or our church’s stand on an issue will be reported on, we want to take time to lay out our position or response in light of God’s Word and to be consistent in what we say (and do!). We also notify our staff of the issue and our stance so that they will also be consistent with our church’s position. And we assign a spokesperson–usually our Communications Director or Pastor–to handle any questions or contact from the press that needs an “official” or “on the record” response. We diligently avoid “off the cuff” remarks when working with the press.
This planned and measured presentation of information goes against the grain for some ministry leaders. There’s a segment of church leadership that says “Say what you really think and let the chips fall where they may.” We believe in being passionate about our beliefs. At the same time, we would rather present ourselves in such a way as to focus on Christ’s message versus our passion.
Another segment of church leaders say, “Any press is good press” and practically jump in front of any camera that’s got a red light on it. We do not believe our name being “out there” is more important that our reputation remaining intact and our message remaining consistent. Think before you speak–especially in public, and most especially to the press.
Separating agendas. More than anything else, remember that the church and the press have separate agendas. There will be times where charity, community or general goodwill brings the press and the church together. More often, however, members of the press are looking for a story or angle on an event. They may look to our church to express a viewpoint. Or they may find something about the church of enough interest to share it with others.
I’ve seen many church leaders who act with the press as though they can somehow gain control of that avenue of media. “I want them to say this or that,” they’re thinking. The press simply cannot be controlled in that manner. They have a job to do and it is not remotely related to the tasks of ministry. Often there is an agenda at work in a particular event or story that you may not be aware of. Be wise when talking to the press about anything–it’s on the record unless you specifically say it is off the record. Any public statement or action by your or your church is fair game for comment, criticism and coverage by the media. Heed the Bible’s warning to believers to avoid even the “appearance of” those things which may go against God’s Word. Any time you open yourself up to the press–even in a positive situation–you are putting your reputation on the line.
Sadly, many churches only consider an organized policy and procedure for working with the media after something negative occurs. A critical story, a church member who commits a very public sin, a disagreement that comes to light–any of these can damage your church’s reputation. Without investing in relationships with the press or planning your response to issues and situations, you are vulnerable to negative coverage in the media.
I have a great relationship with many members of the press and still deal with misquotes and negative comments from time to time. And conversely, we are merely people, and we still sin, and the press sometimes covers our mistakes. When working with the press there is little room for error. Any mistake by either party–us or the press–is going public. A good plan, regular contact and a reserved and thoughtful attitude when talking with members of the press will go a long way to making each experience with the media a positive one.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.