Perspectives on External Communications:
IV-Public Relations

The Alban Weekly continues a four-part series on managing your congregational public image. With all that’s going on inside congregations-from printing worship bulletins to creating the newsletter to maintaining a Web site-finding time to communicate effectively with the world outside can be difficult. Yet more and more congregations are feeling pressured to do so. How does one do that well, especially when resources (time, money, staffing, and know-how) are in short supply?

External Communications, the buzz words for the effort to interact with people outside the congregation, includes advertising (paid promotion), publicity (information about upcoming events), marketing (establishing or reinforcing organizational identity and defining various constituencies), and public relations (establishing identity as a participant in the community.) While these functions overlap, we address them in this series, focusing here on public relations.

The Alban Weekly archives contain the first three articles in this series. The first, on advertising, the second, on publicity, and the third, on marketing.

Public Relations

Gone are the days when the church steeple or temple portico established your congregational presence in the community. Congregations are now just one of dozens of organizations competing for space on the civic landscape. Are there proven methods for telling the congregation’s story to the community? How do congregations get media coverage for events and offerings? What can they do to help share news of their contributions to their civic neighbors? In this article, we’ll explore these and other related topics.

A Quick Guide to Public Relations

Public relations is focused on getting the story of the congregation out to the broader community. Congregations are often doing amazing things in the community, but these activities are seldom covered in the local media and almost never in the regional or national media. Even getting coverage from your local denominational communicators can be difficult.

Invest in relationships
Good PR is all about establishing and nurturing relationships-with newspaper editors, civic leaders, and others who are in (or are popular fodder for) the media. Stories about your congregational community will be easier to report for people already in the know. While it is often hard to find the time, a lunch with a local religion reporter, religion editor, news desk manager, or general editor before you have a new story to pitch will make it easier to pitch one once you do. When news is slow, perhaps the person you had lunch with will remember something from your conversation and decide to do a story about it. Don’t focus on big regional or national papers; local papers are ideal for many congregational stories. If a good story appears in a local paper, chances are a regional or national paper will pick it up for its own use. (The same is true for television and radio.)

What is newsworthy? Link with events in the news, stories of people
Key to getting your story printed is doing some of the work for the reporter or editor. Find the intersection of your story with the local community or national trends. If the head of your church board (deacon, warden, etc.) is also a business leader in your area, build the story around how he or she merges faith and work. Perhaps there’s a crisis with underage drinking in your town. If your congregation is doing something to support youth that bucks this trend, there may be a story there. War and terrorism dominate the news-perhaps your congregation is hosting a panel discussion with people of different perspectives. Be clear about those connections when you contact the media. Don’t say, “Our Vestry from St. John’s Church is exploring Faith and Life as part of the adult formation program.” Instead, avoid the jargon, and say, “Mr. Jones is a leader in our congregation. He’s got a unique perspective on how his spiritual and work lives intersect.” Even better if you can add, “As a follow up to your series of reports about spiritual life and work, you might find this session with Mr. Jones interesting.” Help the media do their job by staying on top of the news and finding the intersection with your congregational work.

Know your congregational story: Past and present

A helpful (and fun) project is to research and articulate your congregational story. Archives, public records, and the personal remembrances of members often reveal hidden or forgotten facts about your congregation. In past decades, congregations were often more engaged in community life than they are today, and newsworthy stories are often hidden away. Local media can help bring those stories to light and establish your congregation as a unique place in the community. You can also recruit members to help find stories in the congregation today. Keep the secular audience in mind. An editor probably won’t print a sermon but would consider printing an interview with a senior pastor.

Keep it simple

When working with the media, keeping it simple is important. Avoid jargon or in-house knowledge-assume the person you are speaking with knows nothing about your faith community. Even simple terms such as “reverend” or “pastor” can throw someone off. Many organizations avoid conversation about religion, and some even exclude church listings from community events. Always view and present your material through the secular filter. Is there a way to be true to the event that maintains its integrity within the congregation yet makes it more palatable to the general public? You might even send a prewritten story or press release. One reporter I knew said the best chance of getting a story published in the local paper was to have it as close to publishable form as possible-add a picture or two, and it’s almost a sure bet.

While that’s stretching things a bit, there is some truth to doing as much preparatory and background work as possible for the reporter or editor. Provide a brief description of your faith community, its history, biographies of the principal leaders of the congregation, and so on.

Nuts and bolts: How to do it

Once you have a story idea, call or e-mail your media contacts. If you have to leave a message, be as clear as possible about your call, for example, “I have a story about Mr. Jones of XYZ Corporation who will be talking about the spirituality of his work.” Be just as clear in the subject line of an email. If you don’t have a contact, speak with the news desk editor. Often this is a junior member of the staff, so be as specific as possible. The best placement of religious news is often NOT the religion pages, so the general news desk is the best place to start. Faxing press releases is generally not a good idea unless they are specifically requested.

Talk with the reporter about the story, being sure to include the secular hook. Address the reasons why someone would read or listen to (or care about, for that matter) this story. If you can’t answer these before you call, you might not have a good story.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are the slowest news days, so if possible, pitch your ideas 2 or 3 days before to get the best chance of being published. Provide pictures or offer the
opportunity to take photos; avoid head shots or groups of people sitting. Focus on action shots. If these photos can be provided in a digital format, that’s even easier for the reporter.

Once the story is published or broadcast, be sure to contact the reporter and editor to thank them. Even if the story is less than you hoped for, be sure to respond. It is, after all, about relationships. As your congregation proves itself newsworthy, the flow begins, and your congregational identity is cemented in the community. 

Featured Resources

AL136_SMWelcome! Tools and Techniques for New Member Ministry by Andrew D. Weeks

This toolkit of intentional and compassionate strategies takes an encouraging, incremental approach to help even small groups get started quickly. Study the separate chapters on: Imaginative Marketing, The Ministry of Greeting, Crafting Welcoming Materials, Tracking and Involving Newcomers, and Structuring Groups for Growth. Then adapt an additional 34 pages of template forms, brochures, and procedures to your needs.

AL246_SM Community Ministry: New Challenges, Proven Steps to Faith-Based Initiatives by Carl S. Dudley

Dudley offers guidance for congregational leaders who need to create tools, get started, and take next steps to respond to God’s call to extraordinary ministry in their community. With thought-provoking discussions about congregations as learning organizations, the relationship between ongoing faith formation and social action, examples from outstanding new ministries, and an updated resource list, Dudley rounds out this essential, practical, and readable manual.

AL187_SM Feeding the Flock: Restaurants and Churches You’d Stand in Line For by Russell Chandler

This award-winning journalist and veteran religion writer for the Los Angeles Times offers striking lessons and principles of restaurant success that can be applied creatively to church leadership and growth. Chandler lightheartedly delivers solid, non-preachy, motivating insights into ways churches can be faithful to Jesus’ teaching “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Includes charts and rating forms, reflection questions, and action items. Can be easily used as an interactive workbook and study resource for congregations.