By Chris Turner
Director of communications, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board
For years I’ve been leading crisis communications and media relations workshops for all types of organizations and I usually open those training sessions with that statement. The response is usually an uncomfortable laugh, especially since I don’t smile when I say it. I have been a reporter and organizational communicator for about 30 years and I’ve unfortunately seen – and experienced – the truth of that statement from both sides.
In my role as director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, I often counsel ministers, mostly pastors, how to communicate during a crisis in which they and their churches find themselves. Unfortunately, the frequency of such sessions has increased in the past 18 months.
The range of topics is diverse. Examples? Child sexual abuse was insinuated (no formal accusation) at one church that had a mother’s day out program. Another pastor was facing the crisis of a financial secretary embezzling church funds. Then there was the church dealing with the tension of a minister’s moral failure. The list goes on.
The results could be catastrophic for the church if not managed well, and let’s face it, Satan is determined to destroy the church. Since he can’t destroy the church, he can at the least devastate a church’s reputation.
In every crisis there are at least two key groups of interested people: Those in the organization (members/employees), and those outside the organization. Often, if the crisis is remotely newsworthy, the media is a third group. How leaders respond in a timely manner to each of these groups determines how successful they will be in managing a crisis. Crises are like wildfires on windy days. If not dealt with quickly they escalate quickly, especially in this age of social media. Here are some basics for how to manage a crisis and if you need more help, call me at 615-371-2075.
Overestimate the crisis. Basically, it is better to initially launch a large response then scale down if the crisis is not that big than it is to underestimate a crisis and be buried by it before you can escalate your response.
Get your attitude right. Crises are major inconveniences and I’ve seen many leaders blow them off, determining crises are something with which they can’t be bothered. The landscape is littered with high-powered leaders removed from their positions because they didn’t respond to a crisis in a serious manner. Leader, manage the crisis or it will manage you.
Get the facts. Everything you do from the moment a crisis crashes on your shores must be based on facts. Get every detail you can of a situation and write them all down. These will determine how you respond and what you communicate.
Get your messaging ready. You have to determine what to say and leaders must all be on the same page saying the same thing. The first audience to which you must communicate is your church. People left in the dark become suspicious. Expect the media to call, and it is that group that can either enhance the church’s reputation or damage it. WARNING: Do not hate the media. I’ve seen more pastors cause damage by being unprepared in what they said on camera than anything a reporter said or wrote.
Get your actions together. Unfortunately, crises don’t resolve themselves. You may have said the right thing, but crises scream for resolution. The question you must answer is, “How are we going to resolve this mess?” The road out has to be mapped and will require actions from leaders and members.
Crises can be opportunities when handled well. Think about it. A church that handles a crisis in a sound and biblical way instills confidence in its members and sends a positive message to people in the community. Conversely, fumbling a crisis can invoke a mass exodus of members and destroy a church’s reputation in the community.
We live in an age where churches and their members are increasingly facing a diversity of cultural challenges intent on casting a disparaging light on those who follow Christ. Remember, there are two types of organizations in our world: Those who have had a crisis and those whose crisis hasn’t yet hit.
Are you ready? B&R