When the News Media Calls, Be Prepared
If you get "the call," from a smooth, but insistent made-for-radio-or-TV voice asking you, as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) leader, for an instant comment, you need to be prepared.
The call could be about a controversial community program in which your congregation is involved, a national news issue like the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program, or a congregation member who has been arrested for child molestation at the school where he teaches.
Whatever the issue, there are ways you can be prepared when the news media calls. If you're not, you and your congregation will more than likely be portrayed in a less than favorable light.
Several years ago a Washington Post religion reporter showed up on a Sunday morning at the UU Church of Arlington, VA, (832 members), and began questioning members about an internal conflict regarding a minister. The board chair and vice chair drew the reporter aside, gave him a synopsis of the situation and asked for sensitivity. After the congregational meeting that afternoon, the vice chair called the reporter and read him a brief statement. The resulting story was considered neutral.
Deborah Weiner, director of public relations, marketing and information for the UUA, advises congregations to develop a response plan before the media calls. "Congregations need to take time to do some strategic planning before there's a crisis so that you're not caught off guard by something you don't expect."
- Decide in advance who speaks for the congregation, whether it be the minister or board chair. Communicate that policy regularly to the congregation, at annual meetings and through the newsletter and make sure that you have buy-in from the board.
- Review your own safety policies. Always have two teachers in an RE classroom. Have a policy for dealing with disruptive individuals (See InterConnections, March/April 1998).
- Get to know the local media before a negative story breaks. Weiner notes: "In Boston we know that of the three network stations, one is quite responsible, one moderately OK, and one is totally into tabloid news." Also know who in your congregation works for the local media. Call them and ask if they can help you manage the story.
- Anticipate calls if you can, have a response prepared, and stick to it.
Don't assume that no one else knows about your situation. When a UU group fired one of its more popular officials, but made no announcement, word spread rapidly. "Ten minutes after it happened it was all over the Internet," Weiner said. "When someone called the agency, they said, "What? No one is supposed to know about that!'"
Congregations that are unsure whether they should have legal counsel for a situation that arises may obtain general advice from Kathleen Montgomery, UUA executive vice president.
When a situation develops keep your own members informed. Consider these strategies:
- Call a special meeting of the board and inform the appropriate committees. Write a brief article for the newsletter, then prepare a more detailed letter to the congregation. Don't go into more detail than is necessary, but be honest and direct.
- Hold a special worship service to strengthen the congregation. Show care for everyone involved, including those who may be under investigation.
- If you've been handed a lemon, make lemonade. If your congregation makes the news, for good or ill, consider it free publicity and be prepared to meet curious visitors on Sunday morning with your best face forward. When the custodian at a UU church was arrested for bringing a woman to the church at night and assaulting her, the congregation handled the media calls responsibly, said Weiner. "They were very clear about what they were doing and as a result the situation was defused without adverse publicity. These kinds of situations don't happen often, but they do happen and congregations need to be prepared."