Crisis Communication for Churches

Crisis Communication for Churches

October 16, 2017 by

Public relations (PR) gets a bad rap. With politicians and corporations spinning the truth, covering up mistakes, inflating numbers, or twisting facts, it’s no wonder people cringe when you mention PR and the church in the same sentence.

But the reality is that your church does PR whether you mean to or not. Everything you say and do (and everything you don’t say and don’t do) comes under the umbrella of PR. Your words and actions affect how people think and feel about your church. And their perception shapes your church’s reputation.

Your words and actions affect how people think and feel about your church.

PR Plans Help You Share the Gospel

And you should care about what people think because you want them to listen to the most important message in the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ. You want to be in the best possible position to share that important message. Without trust, you can’t effectively share the good news or meet people’s needs.

That’s precisely why you need a PR strategy and a plan. It builds trust and makes your communications more effective. In addition, it helps you push through the noise and weather the storms when they come—and they will come if you’re preaching the gospel and interacting with people.

A PR plan builds trust, makes your communications more effective, and helps weather crises.

The storm could be something as simple as a negative comment left on your Facebook page or as serious as a moral failure or crime. It could be something unavoidable like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or plumbing issue. Churches experience these scenarios all the time.

PR Plans Prepare You for Crises

But do you have a PR plan for when they occur? Many churches don’t, and, as a result, they have no clue what to do. The media calls; protestors line up; articles get published; church members wonder what in the world is going on…and the church calls me. But by then it’s too late. A church without a PR plan is a church that will always be on the defense when a crisis arises. A church with a plan, though, survives the storm. Everyone knows what to do and how to handle the press. They possess answers to church members’ questions.

If such a world sounds like a dream, it’s not. All you need is a good PR plan that encompasses a proactive marketing and communications strategy. Start building relationships with others in the community—restaurant owners, civil leaders, and other churches and nonprofits in the area. Participate in community events, and start earning some goodwill. The more people you know and the better reputation you have, the more likely it is that you’ll survive any crisis.

A good PR plan involves a proactive marketing and communications strategy.

Besides getting connected in the community, cover these two items in your PR plan:

  1. Know your message and rehearse it often. What does your church want to be known for? What do you believe in? What distinguishes you? You can’t spread the message if you don’t know what is it and why you’re doing it. Then, document the message and share it with all the staff members so that all communications, inside and outside the church, are consistent.
  2. Get active on social media. Don’t just post about your events and fill in the gaps with cute scripture graphics. Engage with people who follow you or interact with a Facebook ad or other online campaign. People will share how to best minister to them but only if you make it a practice to get online and actually listen to them.

PR Plans Protect You During and After a Crisis

Your PR plan should also detail what to do in a crisis. As such, it contains information about who your spokesperson to the media is—and it might not be your senior pastor. You want someone comfortable handling questions on the fly, and not all pastors are equipped for that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into a pastor who’s a classic introvert once they’re off the stage.

The plan should also cover what communications channels you will use for certain types of crises and who will manage those channels. For example, you might use an email newsletter if your church members regularly open it. External communications to the media would take the form of a statement or press release. Remember social, too; some people will check their networks before their email.

PR plans help you before, during, and after a communications crisis.

The plan should also speak to specific crises, such as the natural disaster or plumbing scenario mentioned earlier. Think of every crisis possible and go through the motions of responding to it. Document those steps and walk your senior leaders through them so that they understand and approve them. Now if something does happen, most of the hard work is already done. You just need to follow the plan you’ve already created.

You may also want to document agreed-upon policies in the PR plan, including things like how your church responds to negative comments on social media or handles a protest outside the building. Also work with the senior leaders to create an FAQ of your beliefs, history, and any other subject people could ask about. Establish the answers now so that everyone’s on the same page and answer the questions the same way.

Don’t get caught off guard by a crisis—prepare for it with a PR plan. And don’t be naive and think you don’t need one. If your church has never gone through a crisis yet, then you’re due. So make it a priority to get a plan in place. The mission is far too great, and the message too important to keep putting it off.

More:

For help preparing for a crisis, check out PR Matters: A Survival Guide for Church Communicators.

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region (Creative Commons)
Post By:

Justin Dean


Justin Dean is a church communications advisor and entrepreneur based out of Atlanta. He is the author of PR Matters: A Survival Guide for Church Communicators, and is a co-founder of That Church Conference.
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