“Church for sale despite residents’ opposition”
“Tai chi group booted out by church”
I suspect most of us are secretly – or not so secretly – glad that it’s not us having to front controversial issues like these. There is a strong desire to ignore the media and hope that they’ll go away (which never happens). Saying “no comment” pretty much equates to “guilty as charged” in the eyes of the reading or viewing public, and while sensitivity is needed, having your voice heard, is almost always better than “no comment”. (If you don’t say anything, the story will simply dedicate more space to the other voices on the issue.)
One comment I across a lot in helping parishes deal with controversial issues, is “Why not just say ‘no comment’ and be done with it?” My response is simple: “For mission”. A poor reputation is a barrier to mission, and to be effective in mission, the people in your community must trust you. Trust is built on honesty, openness and transparency – not on “no comment” style responses.
In saying that, of course you have to take care with what you say, but there are some simple things you can do to tip the scales in your favour and help ensure your intended message gets across.
For those of you with long memories, the tips that follow are from workshops Amanda Wells (former communications manager) and I ran with parishes around the country some years ago. These simple guidelines will maximise your chances of being quoted correctly, so here’s how:
Never answer questions off-the-cuff
You wouldn’t give a sermon without giving some thought to what you want to say, and you should apply the same discipline to an interview. If a reporter rings you out-of-the-blue, instead of answering straight away, give yourself time to gather your thoughts and schedule an interview for a convenient time (even if it 10 minutes after the initial call). A bit of prep will help you deliver clear, succinct messages. As long as you organise to ring before the reporter’s deadline, they will not be worried.
Ask the reporter some questions
An interview is only a one-way street if you let it be: take back some of the power by informing yourself:
- ask about the deadline the reporter is working to
- find out who else the reporter is talking to for the story (the reporter is obliged to report both sides of an issue, so it’s helpful for you to know who else will be quoted)
- ask what type of story is it for (for instance is it a feature article in a newspaper or just a general story, or if radio is it for a news bulletin or feature?)
Armed with this info, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running at the interview.
Find out what they are interested in talking about
Reporters may not be able to give you specific questions (this isn’t because they’re being difficult, it is simply because reporters’ questions are driven by the answers given by the interviewee, so many times the exact questions aren’t known). They will, however, be happy to share with you the general area of questioning, so make sure to ask this to help you prepare.
Develop your key message/s
The audience will only remember a couple of key points from an article, so stack the odds in your favour by preparing two or three key messages that you repeat in various ways throughout the interview.
This maximises the chance that what you want reported, gets reported because if you’ve stuck to message, there is little else for the reporter to choose from. If you watch the TV news, this technique will look familiar because it is often employed by politicians. (I realise this isn’t a resounding endorsement for the strategy, but it is a very effective technique in a potentially sticky situation!)
When developing your key messages, ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I want people to remember from this interview?” and craft that into a simple key message. Consider likely audience concerns when developing your key messages. For instance, if the interview is about sale of a property, what is the average reader worried about? Is it loss of community facilities? Is it what will happen to the building after the sale? Make a list of likely concerns and try to address these with your key messages.
And, please don’t forget that the Church’s communications team – Angela Singer and myself – are here to help. A significant part of our role is providing advice to parishes and other church bodies about how to manage media issues, so give us a call if you want some advice.
That’s media-101 for dealing with those unplanned calls from the media, but what about getting your good news stories on the paper? Something about the church anniversary, a retiring minister, a mission trip? Pitching a story idea to your local paper is much easier if you know what the reporter is looking for. That’s the topic of my next blog…
Jose Reader is a communications professional who has worked in a variety of marketing and publicity roles in the public and private sector in the last 18 years, including several years either leading, or as part of, the Church’s communications team.