Church or Ministry PR Crisis: Slaying the Beast of Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Occasionally, I run into a situation that calls for church or ministry PR crisis intervention. Thankfully, these situations are few and far between. You know how it happens; someone says something off-the-cuff that’s inappropriate, unaware that the cameras and recorders are rolling (remember, they are always on). Yikes.

It hurts when it happens. It damages those who have been offended by the statements as well as the offending person and the organization they represent. But there are a few things that can help minimize the damages felt by all of those involved.

While these circumstances are stressful and cause that “the sky is falling” sensation, they can actually be turned around to yield some positive media traction. To clarify, I do not subscribe to the philosophy that says “there’s no such thing as bad press.”

There is such a thing as bad press and bad press is, well—bad.

But, there are also varied levels of bad. On the lesser end of the spectrum, the negative can be a springboard for a teachable moment that can endear you to the folks who are in touch with your ministry. On the severe end of the spectrum, the negative can lead to your ultimate demise. But, there are ways to avoid the worst case scenario.

Here are some practical steps to take to help minimize damages and to help turn a PR nightmare into something benign, if not positive.

  1. Immediately stop everything else you are doing and hit it head on. Time can either be your friend or enemy during a PR crisis, depending on how quickly you respond. In my experience, the sooner you attempt to wrangle the beast, the greater your chances of slaying it. Don’t hesitate to launch into a full blown plan of attack and bring all of your assets to bear on the situation. The beast has claws, fangs and legs—and they will grow if you let them.
  2. Apologize sincerely, thoroughly and clearly. There is no substitute for a well-crafted, thoughtful and sincere apology. If you are guilty, say so! Let them sense that you are genuinely sorry for your insensitivity and the hurt you’ve caused (assuming you really are). Counsel with close associates to get their help on this. You will begin to diffuse the problem if they sense you are sincere. If not, you are simply pouring gasoline on the fire (and further damaging your brand).

  3. Apologize in written and verbal forms. Provide numerous ways for people to be exposed to your apology and to realize that you are taking this crisis seriously. If you write a great press release but only post it on your church or ministry website, then you are increasing your risks. Work diligently, strategically and aggressively to circulate the release to get the word out that you have apologized. (Bad press spreads like wildfire so your apology should follow suit.)
  4. Explain what is going on to those in your organization. It’s important to give a lot of details to your team to ensure that everyone is on the same page. These are the folks fielding the incoming calls and they deserve to know the full story. They should also be informed about how to handle incoming queries. Designate a specific spokesperson and funnel everything to them. The sooner you nail down protocol, the better.

  5. Try to discover the main source of the negative story. Oftentimes, news outlets simply pick up their news from other outlets, without generating original source content. It is helpful to trace articles backwards to determine where everyone is getting their story. It is usually a large and reputable news outlet or a newswire service. The more quickly you find the source and begin to work with them for resolve, the more quickly you might realize resolve. Maintain a Christlike and professional attitude and you might be surprised by how much they help. Be humble and don’t make demands. These are real people too and they are unlikely to respond well if you cop an attitude.
  6. Chase down every negative story and share the apology with them. This could take weeks, months or even years, but only you will care enough to do so. Conduct daily Google searches to see who is still talking about the infraction verses who is covering the apology. Express appreciation to those who are covering the apology. For those who aren’t, you should not only inform them of the apology (by pointing them to the written version), but ask them directly to post the apology and to expose their audience to it. Any reputable journalist or reporter should be happy to do so. If they are unwilling, don’t hesitate to notch up your request within their organization and nag them if necessary. Eventually, someone will pay attention to you and be responsive.

While these suggestions aren’t intended to cover every conceivable scenario, hopefully, they offer some helpful bits to get you started in the right direction.

I know this situation can be emotionally draining and chaotic. But, do your best to outrun, outthink and outmaneuver those who are spreading negativity. It might just help you flip this into a positive experience.

We welcome any and all feedback on this. In addition, I’m thinking about writing a few more posts on handling PR crises. Would you be willing to share any PR experiences of your own or, is there a PR crises topic that you think I should cover?

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