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 advertising.

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

The Advertising Debate

Should your congregation run ads in the newspaper? Are congregations getting the most out of those advertising dollars? Most congregational communications programs include worship leaflets, newsletters, program brochures, promotional flyers, and a web site. Each brings with it relatively fixed costs—and, in most cases, funding that needs to stretch to meet those expenses. Advertising, i.e. paid promotion, can tax even the most robust budget. Paper and printing costs continue to rise dramatically—which leads to ever-increasing advertising rates for print publications. Is the cost of advertising worth it?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. The debate on newspaper advertising volleys between two realities. Where you land depends on your specific congregation and your communication objectives.

Reality #1: Newspaper ads, especially those listed on the ‘religion’ pages, are not very effective for attracting new members. As a result, advertisements don’t justify their expense.

When most congregations survey new members about how they discovered the congregation, newspaper ads consistently come up near the end of the list. (The most popular mechanisms are personal referrals, the web, and the yellow pages.) These reports may reflect a somewhat biased perspective, as many people with a denominational affiliation seeking a church know what they are looking for—the web and yellow pages are likely to be used for information before the general newspaper. Print ads may be more effective with non-affiliated people looking for a faith community. Newspaper religion pages usually lump display ads together into a single table (which is easy for readers to gloss over). Display ads in the religious section may be more effective for providing specific details of coming services or events, but this information is often readily (and more easily) available elsewhere (congregational publications, the web, etc.).

Reality #2: Newspaper ads help a congregation claim its place as a vital and participating member of the community. The expense is money well-spent.

Some feel this in itself is reason enough to run regular ads. In this case, details in the ad aren’t nearly as important as simply being in the paper. The size and scope of an ad is a public display of the congregation’s health and vitality—which sometimes leads to competition between ads from peer congregations.

Many denominations have national ad campaigns that your congregation can use and/or customize for local use. Riding the wave of national campaigns can stretch your advertising dollars. Most national campaigns are intended to bring people through the doors and reinforce the denominational identity. They aren’t necessarily conducive to week-to-week details of services and events—the mainstay of most local religious advertising.

Consider the following as you consider your advertising strategy:

1. Be clear on what you want to accomplish with your ad. Who do you want to reach? What action do you want them to take as a result of seeing your ad? What critical information needs to be included? Be sure the ad addresses these questions and that the format, typeface, and overall design are in keeping with those answers. It might be worth a few hours of a professional designer’s time to create a series of ad templates to find the right look and feel for your ads.

2. Determine what kind of ad will best meet those needs. In what section would you like the ad to appear? If you are reaching out to a new constituency, college students, for example, it might make sense to take some ad space in the college newspaper. Rather than listing service times, the ad might include a specific invitation to students (e.g. take a study break with us). You might also consider running the ad in the living, arts, or weekend section rather than the religion pages.

3. Weigh available resources (finances, staff time) against expected results. A display ad on the religion page may be expensive, but may be justified if you do not have the staffing to implement other activities that would establish your presence in the community. Community, college and weekly paper ad rates are usually considerably less than a metropolitan or regional daily paper. Most papers give non-profit and religious organizations a special advertising rate, though usually this rate is only available on the religion page or in the religion section. Talk with your sales rep to arrange a special rate for ads in other sections. Most papers give a reduced rate to those who agree to run a set number of ads each year.

4. Consider alternatives to the printed newspaper ad. It might be cheaper, and in the long-run more effective, to rent a list and do a direct mailing; advertise on local and/or public radio, or on the web. Investing in good signage that can be changed regularly may be a better investment than weekly newspaper ads. Likewise, participating or sponsoring a local event may do more to establish a community presence than a newspaper ad. It’s a mistake to think that an ad in the newspaper is all the publicity your congregation needs to attract new members or participants.

5. Be sure the ad strategy is part of a larger communications plan. A complete plan should include the means or vehicles to be used to communicate (newsletter, worship announcements, advertising, newsletters and other publications, etc.), production schedules, definitions of your primary and secondary constituencies, key messages you want to convey, staff/volunteer roles and responsibilities, and, of course, a budget.

If you decide to advertise, remember that advertising includes more than ads in the local newspaper. Many radio and televisions stations must, by law, include public service announcements in their broadcast. While these announcements are often scheduled during off-peak hours, it may work for your congregation. The relationship established designates your congregation as part of the community, which may make things easier when you are looking for coverage of an event or have news to share. Some media don’t allow religious announcements. If this is the case, find the overlap with secular or civic angles and pitch th

Increasingly, there are opportunities to advertise on the web, certainly a medium growing in popularity. It’s worth contacting the chamber of commerce, department of tourism, and other regional sites to see if there are opportunities to list your congregation on their sites. Google provides cost-per-click ads, where the congregation only pays for the ad when it is selected for viewing. Advertisers can set a daily budget and designate their ad to appear only in specific geographic areas. Visit for more information.

You may choose not to advertise at all. We know of congregations that redirect advertising dollars to do a few direct mailings each year. Direct mail and printed invitations in real estate packets/welcome wagon tend to work well in newly-developing areas. Hosting a civic event or taking out an ad in the community theater program may also be a more effective way to use advertising funds.

Whatever method you use to get the word out about your congregation, remember the importance of “truth in advertising.” The ad needs to be a true reflection of your congregation. Visitors and new members aren’t likely to return if the ad gave an inaccurate description of your congregation. An ad can’t say, “we welcome you” if there aren’t friendly greeters or other ways to make visitors feel welcome.

Featured Resources

AL273_SM Getting 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.

AL265_SM Find a Niche and Scratch It! Marketing Your Congregation by Robert L. Perry

Convinced that congregations can learn from the wisdom of secular disciplines and apply that wisdom to congregational life without damaging the integrity of the Christian faith, Perry offers a detailed process for using sound marketing principles to identify a congregation’s strengths and the needs of its community, and to develop strategies for effective ministry.