How to Handle a Communications Crisis at Your Church

How to Handle a Communications Crisis at Your Church

November 9, 2016 by

Communications crises befall everyone—the big guys, the little guys, and, yes, nonprofits and churches. There’s no need to be scared or worry (overly much). It won’t do you any good. You can’t control all the factors.

People misunderstand an announcement. They take to social media to voice a complaint. Feelings get hurt, and people say things in a rush of anger. It happens.

Communications crises befall everyone—the big guys, the little guys, and, yes, churches.

And, when it does, you should be prepared. Justin Dean recently led a #cmschat (transcript here) about crisis communications and what to do in the event that one takes place at your church.

Define What Constitutes a Crisis

Communications crises sometimes evoke brands gone awry: Johnson & Johnson, for instance, or the Wounded Warrior Project. They literally make the news.

Potential crises bubble within the church, from a change in staff to a social media post.

But potential crises bubble within the church, too. A change in staff can cause upheaval. A social media post, whether made with good or bad intentions, has the ability to spiral out of control, particularly if the social media manager leaves for the day. An upset staff person could shut down the church website.

The fallout might not catch the attention of the press, but it certainly sets your congregation on high alert. They assess what you say and how and why you say it.

Have a Crisis Communications Plan in Place (and Readily Available)

“If you don’t have a crisis communications plan,” says Justin, “YOU SHOULD. There’s no time to make one when a crisis hits.”

If you don’t have a crisis communications plan for your church, you should.

He’s right. There is no time when a communications crisis strikes. Plus, emotions run hot during a crisis. Having a documented plan prevents gaffes and cools tempers.

The size of your church doesn’t matter, either. Justin says a plan is about “how you communicate during a crisis.” It’s not about how big your church is or whether the press expresses interest.

Choose the Right Response for Negative Comments on Social Media

Justin recommends not leaving negative comments to their own devices, though the choice largely depends on the person and context. Van Baird adds a suggestion: LATTE. He says the best way to respond to negative comments is to Listen, Acknowledge, Thank, Take Action, and Encourage.

Always know what to say with the acronym LATTE.

Meredith Gould and Robb also offer advice. Meredith counsels caution when making too swift of an apology. It can come across as disingenuous and automated, qualities that can stir, rather than still, a person’s furor.

Robb adds awareness. You need to engage criticism but avoid “feeding the trolls.” It’s a fine line, but detailing a crisis communications plan helps define it.

Prepare a Plan for the Media

A staff change might not be news for a journalist, but you never know. Plus, it’s smart to develop relationships with at least the local media. They can help get your news into the community, as well as weather a communications crisis.

Always follow up with the media. Develop a relationship.

Eric Jourgensen advises, “Positive coverage—embrace it and spread the good news. Negative—have a crisis plan and spokesperson in place.”

Other #cmschat participants also share tips.

  1. Have a game plan, have one spokesperson. Create language that everyone speaks, no matter who gets asked. — Zach Hall
  2. Treat reporters and bloggers with respect. Understand their deadlines. — Justin Dean
  3. Be thoughtful in your pitches. DO RESEARCH ON BEATS. (I know, yelling.) Don’t just mass pitch journalists. — Carrie Kintz

Carrie continues, “Follow up with a ‘thank you,’ too, even if the piece wasn’t super flattering. You’ll stand out, and reporters will respect you.”

Create a Point Person at Your Church

No matter how big or small your church, you should have a main point of contact for communications. On that, all the #cmschat participants agree.

You should have one person serving as the main point of contact for church communications.

Robert Carnes adds, “It depends on the size of the church staff, but someone should be responsible.”

Communications crises happen. Sometimes they result from announcements made on stage or a word misspoken in childcare. Other times, they arise from variables outside your control: hurricanes, a citywide mob, gunfire. When those times come — and they will — be prepared for them with a crisis communications plan. It’ll see you through the storm and to a rainbow on the other side.

Looking for more resources? Check out some of these.

han.alles (Creative Commons)
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Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is a resident with The Austin Stone Institute at The Austin Stone Community Church. Her role as a resident is varied but includes writing, editing, illustration and design, and event planning. In the next few months, Erin will grow toward more vocal leadership roles, such as teaching and coaching writers, and will begin to work on her first novel. She volunteered with Creative Missions in 2016 and 2017 and serves as an assistant editor for Church Marketing Sucks.
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