What the Church Can Learn from BP

What the Church Can Learn from BP

June 9, 2010 by

In the wake of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP is rolling out a $50 million ad campaign. The message, “Sorry,” is prompting criticism instead of sympathy.

It’s just the latest in a string of public relations disasters following the original disaster. BP CEO Tony Hayward seems to do much of the damage all by himself, from insisting the environmental impact will be “very, very modest” to whining that he “wants [his] life back.” BP also continues to make headlines as they downplay health risks for clean up crews and are accused of blocking photographers from documenting the spill. The fiasco has even spawned a fake Twitter account, @BPGlobalPR, which has Newsweek playing a game of ‘real or fake’ with the company’s official PR.

An angry (and profanity laden) letter to the media has even surfaced, claiming to be from the author of the fake Twitter feed. And that letter includes some advice for BP that the church can take to heart. It’s what experts have been saying all along: The best marketing is action. If you want a better public image, earn a better public image.

As Chris Gidez, a crisis communications expert, said: “Until the leak is stopped, no amount of advertising or PR will help.”

It should be the central tenent of any good public relations policy. It’s not about spinning bad news, it’s about publicizing the good you’re already doing. And if you’re not doing any good, then you’re in trouble.

What churches can learn from BP is that we’re known by our actions. In the face of disaster do you bumble and stumble from botched apology to staged photo opp? Or do you fix the problem? Do you put on a good show? Or do you do the hard and dirty work of mending fences and healing lives? Do you sweep a problem under the rug? Or do you admit fault,  seek forgiveness and restore justice?

This is perhaps why the Catholic sex abuse scandal won’t go away. It continues to be a PR disaster for the church (and a tragedy in general) because new abuses keep coming to light. Press conferences won’t fix the underlying problem.

BP has spend millions cultivating their image ($100 million last year alone) and now it’s going up in an oily cloud of safety violations and corporate cover-up. No ad campaign is going to fix that. But actually helping people deal with the aftermath? That’s worth talking about.

This is why authentic marketing is crucial for churches. If you’re faking it or not telling the whole story—people will find out. In our social media world people will definitely find out. In the refining fire of a crisis that authenticity only becomes more important.

And pastor, need we remind you that you’re not immune from a PR crisis? Center for Church Communication board member Phil Cooke reminds us that a PR disaster can—and likely will—happen to your church.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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4 Responses to “What the Church Can Learn from BP”

  • Amy
    June 9, 2010

    Amen! I’ve often wondered how many churches have a crisis response and communications plan at the ready for those inopportune times when the unexpected happens. Actions do speak louder than words and having an operational plan and a communications plan developed in advance will ensure churches can respond swiftly. Minutes matter in the court of public opinion.

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  • bondChristian
    June 9, 2010

    Reminds me of the verse that says, “By this they will know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.”

    Once people ask, we can talk. But before they ask, we should just act and show them who Christ is.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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  • Chris Busch
    June 13, 2010

    One of the assumptions many leaders make is that the news media is the enemy. There are occasions of corruption in media, those who want to take someone down to advance their careers, but most news people really do want to get the story right. Often leaders of organizations hurt their causes by trying to hide the facts or by being overly clever in releasing only a very sterile and slanted version of the facts. Then often the organization’s attorneys are involved trying to scrub any outgoing information to minimize legal problems.

    In a crisis it’s good to retain some professional PR help, but insist on truth and transparency. If there are privacy issues (often in the cases of schools being required to protect student records’ privacy) be sure that a clear and cogent explanation is provided to the press.

    Ignoring the press is not a workable strategy these days. Assuming an adversarial position is usually not advisable (unless the reporter has crossed some ethical boundaries). Releasing misleading information is the worst.

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  • Sheila
    July 9, 2010

    BP should perhaps take a lesson from the Tylenol scare from many years ago. Honesty is still and always will be the best policy.

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