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 word 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 publicity.

The Alban Weekly archives contain all four articles in this series. The first, on advertising, the third, on marketing, and the fourth, on public relations.


The congregation is just one of dozens of organizations competing for space on the civic and cultural landscape. Ironically, there is more to do than ever before, yet people seem to have less and less time to do it! How can you insure that events and offerings attract as many people as possible from within the congregation and beyond?

Good publicity begins with good planning: know your event

Congregations host a variety of events. Some serve the congregation (e.g. worship, meetings, meals, and celebrations); others are intended to bring those from outside into the congregation (e.g. concerts, church fairs, holiday bazaars, lectures, or classes). Taking time to clarify who the intended audience is for an event will help direct its publicity. If the class is a scriptural study primarily intended for the congregation, publicity will be limited to usual in-house vehicles—such as newsletters, flyers, posters, Web site, and announcements. If the event is offered to the community at large, publicity will be more widespread and likely will include free and paid advertising, community bulletin boards, posters, and other public displays.

When promoting events hosted by the congregation to a wider audience—a concert, for example—it’s important to tacitly allay concerns that the event is “a religious event” If the event does explicitly engage religion, it’s helpful, especially when working with secular media, to provide context that bridges the secular/religious divide. Consider, for example, publicity for a series of lectures where prominent congregation members are talking about how their faith intersects with their professional lives. The media are searching for a “hook” that resonates with their secular audiences. Linking the congregational event to a current event or trends helps provide that hook. A lecture series “How Today’s Executives Are Navigating the Spiritual Landscape” has more mass appeal than “Come Hear Our Prominent Members Talk about Their Faith.”

The benefits of putting pen to paper (or marker to white board)

Even the best publicity can’t make up for an ill-planned or ill-timed event. When possible, those responsible for communications should be included in the planning effort. Especially in large congregations, the staff members responsible for newsletters and overall scheduling have a good read on the big picture of what’s being planned. (Individual staff or lay leaders tend to myopically focus on the details related to their particular area of responsibility.) Including those with broader perspective in the planning process can insure that the congregation isn’t overloaded with activities or that events don’t compete with one another. Others include event planning as part of regular staff meetings where all constituencies are represented.

There’s nothing like needing to post an event on a Web site or to produce an event flyer to force planners to pin down event details. (And, unfortunately, it’s often the publishing deadline that prompts the effort!) What kind of event is planned, who is the ideal participant, does the event support the congregational mission, and what image of the congregation does it project to the broader community, are all questions planners should be able to answer easily. What means of publicity will be most effective? If directed to youth, an e-invite or online newsletter might be a good way to publicize the event. For a busy group of new parents, a brief written invitation or a phone call message might be best. For a more traditional audience (an elderly group perhaps), a formal, mailed invitation might be appropriate.

Good publicity states what is needed and not much more.

Be sure to include:

The event title and, if needed, a brief description. Monday Night Suppers might be the in-house term for a program to feed the homeless. Adding the invitational, “Join us as we feed the homeless” easily clarifies the title.

  1. Date, time (ideally start and stop times), place, address
  2. Any additional logistical information: driving directions if the location is hard to find, parking/public transportation data, handicap access, details about child care, costs (including any discounts), availability of food or refreshments, and any registration information. Don’t forget to mention if there is no charge for the event.
  3. Where one might find additional information if needed—on the Web, in person, or via phone. Be sure to let the receptionist, Web master, and other in-house staff know that they might be getting questions. Nothing is more off-putting than being directed to more information and having the information missing! It’s best to give the responder a copy of the publicity you’ve created along with supplemental information needed to answer questions. (It’s a good idea to save these questions so they can be addressed next time in the original publicity.)
  4. If possible, anticipate why someone would want to come to the event. What expectations might he or she bring? How will the event meet these expectations? Think of concise wording or images that will invite the participant to take a desired action.

Good publicity is clear about who the intended audience is.

This can be explicitly identified, as in “Attention: Youth aged 14-18,” or more subtle (though just as clear in the minds of those planning the event), such as using email to send an invitation to youth. The key is being consistent with how you address that constituency. It’s also helpful to be clear about what the event organizers hope to accomplish with the event. What is the intended goal of the event? What would success look like? Are there aspects of publicity that can address that? In some cases, a specific invitation or reason why can be included.

Good publicity is accurate: find a good proofreader.

Lack of clarity can be a big problem with publicity. The most obvious gaffes relate to details: missing addresses, typos, reversing numbers in an RSVP phone number. Who hasn’t experienced the embarrassment of printing hundreds of invitations or an announcement that says, “Come Thursday, January 5” when January 5 is actually a Friday? Find and cherish a good
proofreader and be sure to include proofreading time in the review and production process. If you proof your own material, try to leave it for a few hours or overnight before a final review.

Good publicity uses a variety of means to promote an offering.

The most common publicity vehicles in the congregation are newsletters, worship leaflet inserts or calendars, Web sites, flyers, letters, and printed invitations. Often overlooked but especially powerful is word of mouth: from leaders during worship, at meetings or other events, but also informally at social gatherings.

To publicize offerings outside the congregation, think about posting events on community print and electronic listings, and on art and cultural event listings often hosted by local chamber of commerce, library, and schools. Many media outlets and businesses will list local offerings if they are not explicitly religious. Targeted invitations sent to the press, neighborhood businesses, and civic groups can be effective if the event offered has secular relevance or appeal.

A great but difficult source of publicity is to have an event featured in pre-event articles or in “pick of the week” sections of local newspapers or Web sites. It’s helpful to have a preexisting relationship with the appropriate editors/managers of local media. Lacking that, forward information and story ideas to the news desk. (This is usually a junior staffer or intern, so again, be very specific about the story’s “hook.”) Whenever possible, suggest story ideas and be clear about the possible angles the media might take. Bake sales, anniversary celebrations, car washes and other events typical to the congregation aren’t likely to get covered unless there is something remarkable about the event. If the mayor baked brownies for the bake sale that might help it get covered in the media.


Featured Resources

AL273_SMGetting the Word Out: The Alban Guide to Church Communications by Frederick H. Gonnerman

High-quality publications and public relations will enhance a congregation’s overall ministry by promoting strong stewardship, effective evangelism, and exciting parish education. Getting the Word Out provides all the tools congregations need to create attention-grabbing, informative, and inspiring communications.

AL296_SM A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture by Rick Barger

Recognizing the spiritual needs of a success-oriented society, Rick Barger exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church, which is grounded in Christ and the resurrection.