How to communicate when your church has bad news

09 January 2019

Preparation and a plan are key

By Robert White. Illustration by Dooder. Article and illustration reprinted with permission. Get more articles like these by subscribing to Faith Today magazine!

When it comes to a communications crisis, experts and church leaders agree it is not if a crisis communications event will occur, it is when.

Louis Bourque, a regional director with the Association d’Églises Baptistes Évangéliques au Québec (AÉBÉQ), says the denomination discovered this the hard way in December 2015 when one of its church pastors was arrested and accused of physically abusing five young people between 1983 and 2014.

Within 24 hours the regional director at the time was inundated by the media and ended up facing accusations by the victims that he was actually part of the problem. "When he answered the journalists, he was under pressure and had no ability to know how to answer them on the fly," says Bourque. The church’s response made a bad situation even worse, and highlighted the need for a crisis communications plan before a crisis occurs.

Two other more recent events point out why ministry leaders need a clear and concise crisis communications response. In early November 2018, Oshawa’s Calvary Baptist Church faced online fire when a member took her story to the media when church leaders sent her a letter of discipline. Later that month, a scandal erupted at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto when a video depicting a sexual assault within the student body was reported by the media before school administration reported it to police. As a result, the school’s principal and board president resigned while students faced expulsion and criminal charges.

The first step in developing a crisis communications strategy is in knowing what constitutes a crisis. Crisis management consultant Barrie Doyle, based in Midland, Ont., says, "A crisis is anything that has the potential to severely damage an organization’s, a church’s, ministry or witness." Plan to Protect president and CEO Melodie Bissell defines a crisis as "A long-term threat to the organization that could really potentially be disrupting, handicapping or devastating to the organization, and destroy the purposes and the reputation of the organization."

"A crisis is anything that has the potential to severely damage an organization’s, a church’s, ministry or witness."

Patricia Paddey, communications director at Wycliffe College, quotes Duncan Koerber, author of Crisis Communication in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2017) and says "A crisis is a nonroutine, severe event that could harm an organization’s, or an individual’s, reputation or operation." Paddey also says the difference between a problem and a crisis is whether or not it affects the organization’s reputation or financial well-being – in other words, the bottom line.

"If you get a troll who is saying negative things about you on social media, is that a problem or a crisis? It’s a problem, but if you don’t deal with it as soon as you’re able and as soon as you become aware of it, then it can very well escalate into a crisis that could wind up affecting your bottom line."

Recognizing that a crisis is inevitable, there’s one key way churches can mitigate or even negate the damage. In Bourque’s words, "Prepare, prepare, prepare."

Following the 2015 incident Bourque realized the media response their church offered was inadequate. "Without hesitation I and two other members of the leadership team took some training at one of the most well-known public relations companies," he wrote in the fall 2018 edition of Thrive magazine. "This training transformed our apprehension of contact with the media into confidence in our ability to handle our interactions well."

In an interview with Faith Today, Bourque said the training taught them "to have self-control and share exactly what we plan and prepare before the discussion with the journalists."

Preparation includes planning what communications steps should be taken along with understanding who needs to learn about the crisis and when.

"I believe crisis management means preparing for something major, but you don’t really know what you’re preparing for," says Doyle. When he helps ministries create a crisis plan, he takes them through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, focusing on the threats.

"Not just the things we normally think of. What happens if the church is targeted by those who have an agenda against the church? What happens if there’s a zoning issue and there are people in the neighbourhood who are leading the attack at city hall and in the media?

"If you can figure out where the potential crisis may pop up its head, you have some steps that you can take to mitigate and to communicate it," Doyle says.

Along with the SWOT analysis, Doyle says ministries should create a crisis management team, appoint a spokesperson and develop generic media statements, talking points that can be refined for use in times of crisis.

"Write them with lots of blank spaces so you will have to fill in the details. Keep them in your back pocket so that if the worst happens, you have something to rely on."

"Write them with lots of blank spaces. . . . Keep them in your back pocket so that if the worst happens, you have something to rely on."

Beulah Alliance in Edmonton created a crisis communications strategy because it understood the need to be prepared, says communications director Aleina Harrower. "We recognized no organization or church would be immune from the kind of crisis, scandals or media issues that can come forward. To us protecting the church, our beliefs, what we stand for, who we can be in our community meant being prepared to mitigate unnecessary crisis from media attention or negative media attention.

"We’re intentional about so many other things – ministry plans, with budget planning, sermon and teaching scope and sequence – it was important for us to be intentional about preparing for a communications crisis."

The strategy, still in draft form and awaiting board approval, has four steps: 1) designating spokespeople in a crisis, 2) determining the scope of what is said and to whom, 3) defining the message to be shared by speaking the truth, speaking quickly, wisely and to the right people and 4) drafting key messages with the public relations adage in mind – tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.

"Our motivation isn’t to protect Beulah, but to ensure nothing that we would do would be a barrier for people to move closer to Jesus," says Harrower. "It’s our response in the midst of a crisis that’s going to ensure our community as a whole is able to see Jesus in the middle of all of that."

When Paddey became director of communications at Wycliffe College in November 2016, one of the first things on her agenda was creating a crisis communications plan. "The first thing I did was lay out all the various potential situations I imagined going wrong," says Paddey. Next she assigned spokespeople to address those situations, determined who needed to be told about the crisis, and how the college would communicate with those around them.

"Having laid all of that out, now I need to go back and look more closely at each one of those categories and come up with a plan of response for each one of them."

Finding the resources to create crisis communications plans are as close as your keyboard. Experts can be consulted, like Doyle, who has led crisis management workshops for Christian and Missionary Alliance leaders. Harrower used resources she found at the Center for Church Communication in Los Angeles. And this spring Plan to Protect will launch a crisis response certification course for senior executives and board members.

"In the last ten years we’ve helped some organizations draft media statements that they could use when dealing with media instead of just saying, ‘No comment,’" says Bissell, who heads Plan to Protect, which provides abuse prevention training and certification for those working with children, youth and vulnerable adults. "We receive calls every week. I had a phone call this morning at 8 a.m. ‘Melodie, what should we do? We just heard about this on the weekend.’"

The online course will include teaching modules and practical assignments such as conducting a risk assessment, drafting media statements, role playing and responding to sample reporter interview questions, developing a resource directory, working through a case study and practising a crisis response drill.

"At the end of the course they will have, pretty much, a crisis management plan in place that they’ll be able to take to the board to get approved and implemented," says Bissell.

Doyle says churches and ministries are "starting to wake up to the need" for crisis communications plans. Of course, he adds, "There are some that are further ahead than others."

Bourque now leads a small committee that meets monthly to discuss how the AÉBÉQ will react in a potential crisis. "When we reacted in 2015, we reacted so badly and we had to change something. It was a good investment to take this training. We have maybe 50 questions and we discuss together [what] will be [the] best way to answer some questions about this subject. We have to prepare, prepare, prepare."

Robert White is a freelance writer in Guelph, Ont.

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