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Publicity Comes to Those Who Help Make it Happen

Carolyn Burleigh is always looking for ways to get First Unitarian Church of Portland's various ministries into newspapers or onto radio and television. As director of communications and public witness for the Oregon church (1,095), it's part of her job to gain visibility for the congregation.

The congregation makes it easy by being so involved in the community that its actions are an easy "sell" to the media. In the past year, five of these actions have been the basis for significant stories in the local media. Last January First Unitarian had a service to mark the death of the 3,000th American soldier in Iraq. Senior minister Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell wrote an op-ed piece on the war. The congregation was featured in a story during General Assembly there last June. And because Sewell had written another op-ed piece, which was not published, she was invited to contribute to a commentary about an exhibit called "Body Worlds," on the ethics of displaying preserved human bodies. The fifth story, this fall, was about the congregation's new building, which has environmentally responsible features.

Says Burleigh, "We anticipated that the death of the 3,000th American service person would be actively covered in the news. We created a media relations campaign around the timeliness of the event and our already planned social justice work. Because of that we were able to maximize television, radio, and print coverage. Our peace service was covered by three local television news stations, Oregon Public Radio, The Oregonian, and The Portland Tribune. "Our planning was integral to successful media coverage."

True, First Unitarian has more than 1,000 members and many resources, including a part-time director of communications. But it's not about size; it's about heart, says Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Public Relations Director Janet Hayes.

To get noticed, "Get out into the community and do social justice work," she says. "Don't try to invent ways of marketing yourself...follow your mission. Live out our Unitarian Universalist (UU) principles and there will be enough to write about."

The following will help, she says:

  • Put all of your social justice commitments on your website. "That's the first place a reporter looks," says Hayes. "Many websites have too little information." This is the place for board resolutions on marriage equality, the reports of public witness events, and any letters to the editor. "It's also a good place for a simple statement of what Unitarian Universalism is."
  • Be proactive. Think about upcoming anniversaries and news events; plan events around them and send notes to news directors inviting them to contact you for a liberal religious perspective on these issues.

Before a reporter arrives to do a story, leaders at First Unitarian gather to discuss talking points and the message they want to put out. "We think about what we want to say before the time comes to actually say it," Burleigh says.

Think positively, says Rev. Gregory Stewart, senior minister at the First UU Society of San Francisco (467). "As UUs we don't articulate what we believe in enough and with enough enthusiasm. At our church we believe that everything about our faith can change lives and ought to be on the front page. When reporters realize we are serious and we're willing to talk about our faith, they call us. They often hear mostly from conservative churches. They want and need a liberal perspective."

He says the first thing he does when he moves to a new congregation is to introduce himself to the news media. "I promote who we are and find out what they know about us. They're pleasantly surprised a minister would do that and they remember us."

Practice sound bites, he says. "Listen to how newsmakers speak. Pay attention to the issues that impact your members directly—war, marriage equality, the economy—and go to the press with your perspective on those issues."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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