Handling Media in a Crisis

January 15th, 2013
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Often the best opportunity to speak faithfully in the media comes when something goes badly wrong and it is the church’s fault. You have the media’s attention, and you have the opportunity to demonstrate that the church is willing to tell the truth, confess its sins and shortcomings when necessary, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, this is exactly when the temptation to avoid the media is greatest and when the instinct to protect reputations, endowments, and power structures is strongest. But even if hiding from bad news is possible, it is generally not a good idea. Churches have a particular responsibility to speak the truth in a timely and transparent way even when it’s uncomfortable. And when we don’t, the culture of secrecy that takes hold ultimately deforms our ability to follow the way of the gospel.

There are four simple rules for handling media in a crisis. They are easy to understand, but can be quite difficult to apply:

  1. Tell your own bad news.
  2. Tell it quickly.
  3. Tell it all.
  4. Don’t let the lawyers run the show.

1. Tell your own bad news.

The reasons for this rule are probably self-explanatory. If something difficult and media-worthy is happening—often related to sex or money, and sometimes both—you want to make sure that the story that gets told to the world through the media is accurate and includes any mitigating circumstances or steps that the church is taking to set things right.

How do you know if your bad news rises to the level of requiring media disclosure? There are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the news involve a leader elected or chosen by church members? Would the members’ ability to provide oversight be compromised if they did not know the news?
  • Do people at church and in the wider community need to know about the news so that they can safeguard children, assets, or anything else from someone they might otherwise have trusted?
  • Does the church need to ask forgiveness and make amends for past sins of commission or omission?
  • Is the news going to get released by someone else if you don’t do it?
  • Is the news going to become public unless you take active steps to cover it up?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you’ve got news to tell.

Once you have determined that you need to disclose bad news, you will want to develop a carefully choreographed plan. To start, identify your internal audiences and develop a plan to tell them first. Your people—whether they are congregation members, clergy, advocates, or community leaders—will take things better if they hear from you before they read it in the newspaper or hear it on the radio.

For both clarity and to keep community anxiety at a minimum, in a crisis it’s important to establish one authoritative spokesperson and communications source for disseminating information about the crisis. It can be helpful to cultivate surrogates and allies who can carry your messages, but you must release your own news.

2. Tell it quickly.

The news industry operates 24/7, and waiting any time at all before addressing reporters’ questions could cause you to miss the news cycle and get caught having to play defense against a story that uses someone else’s version of the events as its foundation. What’s more, news stories for which church leaders were “unavailable for comment” can stoke mistrust of religious authority in ways that make readers, and sometimes reporters, unwilling to hear much of anything else that the church needs to say.

When you have bad news that either must go public for transparency’s sake or will go public because of media interest, tell your news to the media as soon as you have told it to your internal constituency. Make every effort to disclose the facts before anyone else with information about the bad news goes public. If you are facing a lawsuit, have discovered an abuser, are terminating a clergy member or employee for boundary violations or disciplinary reasons, or announcing other bad news, a media release is generally the best way to go. It ensures that all media will get the same version of the story. You may choose to combine a release with a one-on-one interview if a reporter has exclusive information on a story, or if you have a longstanding relationship with the reporter.

Bad news seems seldom to come to light between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and so when a crisis is happening, both the person handling communications and the principal spokespeople need to be available around the clock. We are as much in favor of sabbath time, drawing boundaries with work, and unplugging to seek balance as the next Christian, but during a crisis, those bets are off.

3. Tell it all.

Here is a crisis communications person’s worst nightmare: A reporter who has been following a story contacts you because she has a new piece of information or evidence—a cancelled check, a victim’s statement, a reliable witness—and you have never heard about what she says she’s got. You ask the reporter when she needs a response and then call the leader in charge of the crisis. You relay the reporter’s information and are met with a long, uncomfortable silence. You feel a pit in your stomach as you realize that what the reporter has told you is true, that your leaders knew about it, and that they did not tell you.

When you are disclosing a crisis, do not leave out important information, even if you think you might be able to get away with it. It’s not honest, and if a reporter catches you doing it, you’ll deserve a story that questions your organization’s credibility. You will also have ruined your relationship with that reporter.

Another element in crisis communications is the pastoral care of the community affected by the crisis. Withholding information that will either reassure that community or allow them to come to terms with the full scope of what has happened constitutes not only poor communications but poor pastoral care.

This rule doesn’t mean that you need to disclose every sordid detail of a scandal or include tangential information that might hurt innocent people. However, the institutional church’s tendency is too often to keep things quiet or tell half-truths in order to avoid embarrassing or discrediting leaders who knew about wrongdoing, but did nothing. If you have to disclose offenses on the part of a church leader, and you know that other church leaders looked the other way or actively colluded, then you have a moral obligation to say so. You will also be protecting your organization against compounding the original crisis with a second crisis of confidence, and you will be sparing the organization the distortions that occur in relationships between people who know the secret and people who don’t.

4. Don’t let the lawyers run the show.

We have been privileged to work with several church lawyers who are the exceptions that prove this rule. These are the lawyers who help the church operate responsibly in the legal world and use the tools of the law to do justice and seek mercy. When a crisis communications team is fortunate enough to include one of these lawyers, it’s possible to turn a crisis into a profound opportunity for evangelism by demonstrating that the church can live according to its own precepts, even when things are very difficult.

Ideally, a crisis should be managed by the canonical authority, the church attorney, and the communications person. In the best situations—and there are many across the church— the church lawyer will believe in the communications principles outlined above and the communications person will understand the legal strategy well enough to be respectful of it.

Old institutional habits die hard, however, and too often, church lawyers act not as advocates of justice but as protectors of authority and money. When faced with the threatened choice between bankrupting the institution and losing credibility as a Christian organization, leaders too often assume that is it easier to recover from the latter than the former. Moreover, even lawyers familiar with the polity of churches in which laypeople exercise significant authority sometimes proceed in ways that deprive the members of the information they need if they are to hold their leaders accountable.

Communications in these situations can be very difficult, because the best, most ethical communications strategy is sometimes in conflict with the legal strategy recommended by attorneys who want to safeguard monetary assets, and the reputations of those in authority. Not surprisingly, in these situations, decision-makers may be reluctant to keep the communications person in the loop and to take that person’s advice. Whether you are a clergyperson, a communications person, or an elected leader, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, you may have difficult decisions to make about your own obligations and responsibilities as a professional person and a Christian.

excerpt from: Speaking Faithfully:Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson ©2012 Morehouse Publishing. Used with permission.

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