February 19, 2010
Responding to Negative Coverage in the Media
Two church communications professionals offer tips.
Editor’s Note: On February 4, a local television station ran a story about Ed Young and Fellowship Church, the Grapevine, Texas, where he leads. The piece, citing anonymous former staff members, among others, suggests Young leads a lavish lifestyle. Young responded that same day through a post entitled “No Secrets,” on his blog, then addressed it from the pulpit on February 8.
Kevin Hendricks from ChurchMarketingSucks.com, the blog for the non-profit Center for Church Communication, took the opportunity to ask a bigger question—when a church faces negative coverage in the media, how should it respond? Below is an excerpt of the interview Hendricks did with Kem Meyer, the communications director at Granger Community Church in Indiana, and Kent Shaffer, the founder of Church Relevance (you can also read the full version):
When faced with criticism and accusations, it’s a fine response line between too little (e.g., ignore it, act like it’s not there) and too much (e.g., hijack the home page, defensively counterpoint every single point). Every circumstance needs to be looked at individually, no two situations are exactly the same. There are a lot of variables at play; proximity, topic, source, etc. And each of these variables needs to be considered and weighed appropriately. But regardless of how any of that shakes out, here are a couple of bullets that apply to every situation:
Full disclosure is always the best policy. When there is nothing to hide, a direct answer to a direct question is the way to go. The goal isn’t to get agreement on the answer, but to answer the question unapologetically. It reinforces the message “there is no cover-up here. It is what it is.” In this case, it would be great for someone to stand up and say “Yes, we own a plane, and this is why we own the plane, and this is how we pay for it, yada yada…” Without information—people just make up their own truth. And then they start to believe it.
It’s important to listen to the chatter. If there were a report about my senior pastor, I would make sure we watched the report—in full—as a senior management team. It’s responsible to listen to what people are saying in public spaces about your church and leaders. It’s not a self-centered, off-mission indulgence, but a window to the full picture. What we learn when we listen—good and bad—is the only way to discover the full picture about public perception (which is their reality). Sometimes we discover that the picture we’re drawing isn’t telling the story we think it is and we get a chance to course correct. We still are in control of which audiences we respond to and which to absorb, but without looking through that window—we risk making decisions on incomplete or inaccurate information about ourselves.
In sports there is an expression, "you have to be good enough to beat the referee." You have to be above reproach and go the extra mile to avoid the appearance of foul play. Both in sports and the limelight, people's perceptions often trump the reality of a star's actions and motives.
People are funny when it comes to religion and money ... sadly, because of religion's long history of financial abuse. Depending on your culture, theology and lifestyle, lavishness in the church may be an abomination or a way to show respect to God and one's pastor.
I recommend that churches, particularly influential ones, strive to be above reproach.
Avoid letting your financial behavior become a stumbling block that turns some people off to Christ. Join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Have personal accountability partners. Give generously and then give some more.
If you church does come under fire for perceived financial irresponsibility, address it immediately, honestly and humbly. Seek council, and if you did do wrong, publicly apologize and commit to correct the wrongs (much like Toyota is doing with their recalls). Don't ignore the media or you will likely appear guilty even though that may be far, far from the truth. Old school public relations would ignore bad publicity or just shout louder, but in today's wired world where almost anyone can have a platform (i.e., Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.), the best solution is to authentically engage your accusers through meaningful conversations online and offline.
Public relations that engages people doesn't make the problem disappear or get everyone to think just like you. But it is real, honest and undeniable, and most importantly, it causes people to respect you (even if they hate you). It is not easy. And there is no perfect formula to follow. But to some degree you should be putting forth effort for a few weeks via multiple channels to share the truth from your side of the story.