If you are a Bible-preaching, Jesus-loving church, chances are you are going to come across some bad publicity from time to time. That’s what happens when your message challenges everything the world around you holds dear.
People don’t like to be told that they are sinners who need a savior, and the media—whether it be a local blog, a church member with a Twitter account, or the New York Times—loves to stir up trouble any chance they get.
These days it’s impossible for a church to avoid controversy. Even the most watered down churches are susceptible to bad publicity. And we’re all vulnerable to mistakes, moral failure, and unforeseen pitfalls caused by sin.
It’s naïve and dangerous to be unprepared for how you’ll react when the time comes. Does your church have a communications plan ready to go for when a PR disaster hits?
Do the people behind your Facebook and Twitter account know what to do when someone posts a negative comment on one of your church’s posts?
How long would it take your leaders to form a plan of action to respond to bad publicity?
We can’t always anticipate what will happen, nor can we avoid it. But we can do our best to plan ahead, and the time to prepare is now.
Here are 5 things to consider so your church can be better prepared to deal with bad publicity:
1. Create a crisis communications plan.
Don’t wait until a crisis happens before you make a plan. Write up a plan now, meet about it, poke holes in it, get it approved by your senior leaders, and then test it out as much as you are able to. It will likely be an ever-changing document (or set of documents). Having a plan prepared ahead of time will save you from making mistakes during a crisis. The plan should be as detailed as possible, covering every type of scenario you can anticipate for your church.
2. Choose a spokesperson before he or she is needed.
If your church needs to make a public statement or respond to a press request, who is the person who will do that? If you don’t know ahead of time, you’ll waste valuable time debating whose job it is when the time comes. In the case of a press request, you usually only have a few hours at most to give a proper response.
It may not be the same person for each type of request. You may have several people on staff who are qualified to speak on behalf of the church. Determine which topics each person is better suited to handle, and keep in mind existing relationships and personalities when choosing who talks to whom.
In some cases, your senior pastor may be the person most qualified, but he or she doesn’t have to be the spokesperson. In order to take pressure off your senior leader, I suggest they rarely be the main spokesperson unless you are making a positive announcement that you want to go big.
3. Create a FAQ document.
Prepare answers to the most common questions you receive about your church or that you anticipate you’ll receive. It could include common belief questions, theological questions, questions about your church’s history, or personal info on your pastors and staff. Have the answers pre-written and ready to go so that people responding on social media, in-person, or through email and phone can use these answers and stay unified with the message of the church.
You don’t have to answer every question, but you should have an answer for each question. Be candid and explain why you choose to keep some things private (such as a pastor’s salary or info about a counseling case that went public). Also consider publishing the questions and answers on your website and keeping them up to date. It gives a central place to refer all questions. When a reporter, or even a curious member or critic can easily find the answers, there is less opportunity for someone within your church or staff to answer incorrectly.
4. Create a social media plan and comment policy.
How do you want your staff and social media volunteers to respond to people on social media, particularly if someone has a tough question or posts a negative comment? Do you respond, do you delete it, or do they try and take it offline? Discuss what works best for your church, make a policy, write it down, and distribute it to those who need it.
Consider also creating a public commenting policy and adding it to the about section of your Facebook page. That way people know what to expect, and they won’t be able to claim that you are treating one person differently from another.
5. Know your message well and communicate it well.
It seems like a no brainer, and it should be. Staying consistent with your message will go a long way in preventing a negative publicity situation. When you are confident in what you believe and why, you are less likely to get defensive if confronted, which can quickly escalate a negative situation.
Take the time to meet with your teams and write out your mission, vision, and values. Communicate it well. Communicate it often. And don’t waver from it under pressure.
Be prepared, but don’t waste valuable time and energy worrying about what might happen. The best way to avoid bad publicity is to treat people well, stay consistent with your message, and plan ahead so you’re always on your feet.
“When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.” – Proverbs 10:25