Responding to Media Inquiries:  Best Practices for Local Churches

Does the person who answers the phone at your Local Church know what to do if the caller is a reporter from the local news network?  What if your office administrator or pastor receives an email from a reporter asking for information on a recent crisis in your church?  Perhaps your church and pastor have recently parted ways less than amicably, or some members of the community are unhappy with the church’s recent decision to sell its property or close its preschool.  United Church of Christ Local Churches have attracted media attention in many ways.  If a Local Church is unprepared for a media inquiry, the pastor and church leaders may experience panic, have their focus turned away from their ministry in a time of great need, or damage the reputation of the church or create legal liability for the church through their reactions.  But if a church has a media relations plan, it can take advantage of media inquiries to tell the story of the church’s ministry from the church’s perspective.

For this article, I’m grateful for the wisdom, experience, and advice of Maic D’Agostino, the Editorial Communications and News Strategist for the United Church of Christ National Setting.  He oversees the weekly UCC News Digest and is the main point of contact for media relations.  Before joining the UCC, he worked as a journalist for an independent newspaper.  He answered all my questions about how churches can be prepared to respond to the media, and the strategies in this piece arise out of his expertise. 

Get to Know Your Local Media

“Churches can be proactive,” Maic says.  “They can reach out and develop relationships with local media, which is very open to people submitting or suggesting news stories.”  Establishing strong connections with local media can be an effective way of engaging the community with your church’s ministries and extending the reach of the congregation, especially in areas with a strong local journalism presence.

Engaging with the local media should be part of a media relations plan.  Invite the local news to special events at your church, like a centennial celebration, the opening of a community ministry like a food bank, or a forum on a ballot issue hosted by the church.  Notify the local media when the senior minister retires, a new pastor is called, or the church passes an important resolution in the life of the church’s ministry. 

Set Up a News Alert for Your Church and Key Staff

Set up a news alert for your church and key staff in Google Alerts.  You will receive an email when your church’s name or the names of key staff members are mentioned in the news.  This can help you anticipate when your church might attract the attention of the media.  Be sure that the email is being monitored regularly.

Develop a Strategy to Respond to Media Inquiries

Part of your church’s media relations plan should be to strategize in advance how your church will respond to a reporter’s email or telephone call.  One key provision of a media relations plan is identifying an individual who will responsible for fielding media inquiries.  Your church may designate more than one individual depending on the subject of the inquiry.  For example, questions about the church’s social justice ministries may be best directed to the pastor, while inquiries about legal or personnel matters are likely more appropriately directed to a lay leader such as the moderator or council president.  Consider the individual’s responsibility and authority under the church’s bylaws and job description, knowledge of the subject area, and overall comfort level and skill in communications.  Individuals speaking to the media on behalf of the church will be representing the church, and their job title or elected position should reflect the importance of that function.  

Be clear that only the individuals designated as spokespersons should speak with the media on behalf of the church, and no other staff members are authorized to speak to the media about church matters.  Train staff members on the plan, so they know what to do if they answer the phone and a reporter is on the line.

Part of your church’s media relations plan may look something like this:

If a media inquiry is received by telephone:

  • Do not respond substantively to the reporter’s question at that time
  • Ask for the reporter’s name, telephone number, and news organization
  • Ask for the reporter’s deadline
  • Tell the reporter that the spokesperson will get back to them by their deadline
  • Contact the spokesperson and provide the reporter’s contact information, question, and deadline
  • Vet the reporter and the news organization
  • Gather information about the question and/or develop talking points or a statement to respond
  • Ensure that the reporter’s call is returned in a timely manner

A similar strategy can be used for email inquiries.  Don’t simply ignore voicemails and emails from the press.

Research the Reporter and News Organization

Do not substantively answer a reporter’s questions without first being aware of their other work and their news organization.  Asking for the reporter’s name, contact information, and deadline gives your church time to do basic research that will inform how the church responds.  Do a web search for the reporter’s name and review their articles.  Do the same for the news outlet for which they are writing.  It is not uncommon for a journalist to freelance or write for multiple platforms.  The identity of the news outlet can inform your church’s response.  

Maic cautions against a “no comment” approach.  “You want to respond if someone is questioning your ministries.  You’re not hiding anything.  This is a chance for the church to tell its story.”  If your church refuses to comment, that will be part of the reporter’s story and may negatively impact the church’s reputation. 

Gather Information and Decide What to Say

If the inquiry is about a ministry of the church, a special event, or a positive development in the life of the church, the church likely already has information that you can use to respond.

Sometimes, a reporter’s call is the first time that a church hears about an issue that has captured the media’s interest.  Learn what you reasonably can about the subject within the time frame you have to respond.  The spokesperson should not be expected to develop talking points or to make decisions about what to say alone.  That individual can and should consult with other church leaders, the Conference, and, if it is or may become a legal issue, the church’s attorney.  Some churches may choose to engage a media relations consultant.

Your church may choose to respond with a written statement.  Some United Church of Christ Local Churches as well as the National Setting have been approached by extremist organizations with questions about our churches’ social justice ministries.  These organizations are unlikely to represent the church’s ministries in a fair way in their reporting.  “Churches can be empowered to control their narrative,” Maic notes.  “Providing a written statement can be an opportunity to say what the church’s values are and describe its theology without having to answer any questions.  It’s likely that you already have language that says why this is an important ministry of your church.”

Consider your church’s obligations as an employer and legal entity in deciding how to respond to a reporter’s question.  If your church has been sued, for example, you will not want to substantively respond to questions from a reporter as to whether the claims in the lawsuit are true, because you don’t want to jeopardize your legal position by making public statements that can be introduced as evidence in the case.  The same caution holds for events that might lead to a lawsuit:  an accident or crime that occurred at the church, an employment dispute, or the arrest of a staff member or congregant.  

A church should follow the guidance of its attorney in speaking to the media about these matters.  It is usually okay to provide some basic information about the church, such as when it was founded and the size of the congregation.  You can confirm the name, position title, and employment status of an employee who may be the subject of inquiry, and how long they have worked for the church.  Do not discuss why the employee is no longer employed, if that is the case.  You may also want to provide some basic information on how the church is governed relative to the incident.  One example in the case of a lawsuit may be:  “Plymouth Church is governed by a board of directors called a church council, which is elected by the congregation.  The council has a process to review and handle lawsuits and is following that process to determine our next steps.  We are keeping everyone affected in our prayers during this difficult time.”  Your community and congregation need to be assured that the church is aware of and handling the situation appropriately. 

Return the Reporter’s Call in a Timely Manner

The spokesperson should return the reporter’s call, prepared with the information the church has gathered, and ready to answer the reporter’s questions.  If your church does not get back to the reporter as promised, the news story will likely include a note that the church did not respond by the reporter’s deadline.  This affects the church’s ability to tell its story, and may create the impression that the matter is not being carefully attended to by the church.  Make every effort to respond by the deadline.

Regardless of how much you decide to say, be truthful.  Don’t disparage others.  Don’t feel pressured to reveal more than you are comfortable saying or answer questions that you don’t have the information to answer.  Remember that it is a reporter’s job to tell a story.  “Journalists are not trying to entrap people, get them to talk about things that they don’t know about, or trick them into saying anything they don’t want to say.  They are trying to tell a story and will tell it based on their understanding.  If they don’t have access to certain details, they can’t tell the story accurately,” Maic explains.  “But churches can control the story they tell.” 

When you do speak with the reporter, ask them to send you a link to the story or let you know when it is published.  Let staff, the congregation, and the Conference know that a news story about the church will soon be published and refer them to the appropriate individual if they have questions.  Stories about Local Churches can often prompt media calls to other settings of the United Church of Christ, and it is helpful to have advance knowledge to prepare and ensure consistent messaging.

Remember that your church has a story to tell.  Use these practices to control the narrative of your church’s story, tell others about its valuable ministries, and to live out its mission in the community.

The information provided in this article is not legal advice.  If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.

Categories: General Counsel Blog

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