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January/February 2005 Issue

Read All About It:
How Churches Can Use the Media for Free Publicity

By Marianne Foscarini and Karen Stiller

Men making pancakes in a church probably wouldn’t make it onto CNN, but a film crew recorded the Shrove Tuesday event for a local television station in Petawawa, Ont. The media coverage was a direct result of a press release sent by Hilda Young, publicity director of St. George’s Protestant Chapel on the Canadian Forces Base in the area. Young knew she had a “hook” for her story—a point of interest that the station could use to inform and in this case probably entertain their viewers. “The novelty was a newly formed men’s group was doing the cooking,” explains Young.

Related Article
What about spending money on a professional advertising campaign? See How to Advertise the Good News in the Sep/Oct 2006 issue of Faith Today.

Young and her church are onto something. The media can help a church create community awareness about speakers, events, new programs and even pancake dinners. If it’s done in the form of a news story or feature, this exposure is free. The trick is to know how and when to use the media.

In peaceful Port Perry, Ont., Emmanuel Pentecostal Church seems to be hopping. The local paper highlights event after event, speaker after speaker. Carol Anne Carter is the church’s office administrator, and she is practical about the benefits of the media attention their church receives. “It saves us a lot in advertising. They put nice big articles in. If we had to pay for coverage like that, it would be a lot.”

Some churches, however, fear that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even when it comes to promoting their church events through their local media. Fear of being misquoted and misrepresented makes many people leery of contacting the paper, radio or television station. Robyn Braley of UniMark Creative Inc., a marketing and communications firm in Calgary, Alta., encourages churches to move beyond that hesitation and become savvy about harnessing the power of the media. “The good news of Jesus Christ is the most important story that anybody can tell, and the Church has as much right to be heard…as much as any other member of the community.”

According to Richelle Wiseman, director of the Calgary-based Centre for Faith and the Media, the benefits of interacting with the media outweigh the risk. She advises that churches give reporters the benefit of the doubt. “Most of them are trying very hard to do their job well,” she says. “And you’ll find that if you treat them with respect they will treat you with respect.”

A huge part of any reporter’s job is to find stories. Most of them are always happy to hear about what is going on. “I can’t write the stories that don’t come to me,” says Joe Woodard, religion reporter of The Calgary Herald. Churches tend to make the common mistake of promoting their activities primarily through internal memos, bulletin announcements and newsletters read only by members. They are preaching to the converted and enticing people to come who are already there.

That’s a serious mistake, says John Longhurst, media director for Mennonite Central Committee Canada and author of Making the News: An Essential Guide for Effective Media Relations. “People that churches want to reach today with their messages don’t read Faith Today or denominational periodicals. But they watch the news, listen to the radio and read newspapers,” he explains. “They need to communicate those messages where people are, and not keep their light under the proverbial bushel.”

So how does the light get out from under the bushel? First of all, churches need to learn the difference between what’s new and exciting and “same old, same old.” Toronto religion writer and Faith Today contributor Ron Csillag says when churches pitch a story to the media, there is often a problem. “Pitching a non-story is their biggest mistake,” he says. “It’s like anything else. You’ve got to have something that’s worth doing, worth talking about and worth relating to others.”

In other words, it has to be news. It’s not news if it’s something that people expect you to be doing anyway. Long-hurst describes it this way in Making the News: “The fact that you fed hungry people this year is not news. But if you fed more people this year than last year, started new programs to feed the hungry, fed people in a particular country for the first time or fed them in a unique way—that’s news.

”You’re convinced you have some real news, but where do you go with it? Research first. Find out what publications are in your area. No, the Globe and Mail will probably not run a story on your church’s penny drive, but a smaller publication that serves the neighbourhood where the church is located might. Local television stations are interested in stories that are community centered, the “feel good” stories that the news is often lacking. Those short filler pieces can nicely round out their newscast—and buy a church lots of visibility without paying a cent.

Another logical starting point is the religion page of some larger papers in urban areas. The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, N.S. runs a religion page once a week. Religion editor Claire McIlveen has some advice for churches looking for media coverage. “Start reading the religion page of the paper you want to get in, watch the television station or listen to the radio station. Know what they’re covering.” If it’s a church anniversary you are celebrating, you probably won’t make it in the paper, unless you can find a twist that makes your story, whatever the topic, unusual: “—if you have a parishioner that was born on the same day as the church anniversary, or a couple doing ministry together, or a member just back from El Salvador, something unusual that others who don’t go to your church would like to read about.”

In the news world that’s called “pitching a story” and just as at the church ballgame, sometimes you will strike out. But don’t give up. “We’re always looking for stories,” says McIlveen. She advises churches to use well written press releases that highlight the unusual element of the story near the top. Send the release in early in the week when newsrooms aren’t as busy and your story will get more attention. Don’t forget to put your contact information on the release, and follow up the release with a friendly phone call a day or two later.

Developing relationships with a local editor or reporter can be the lifeline from church to community, whether in times of crisis or obtaining free media coverage for your special events and guest speakers. Tim Callaway, pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church in Airdrie, Alta., encourages church leaders to forge relationships with the media. He did—and it has paid off big time. Ten years ago, while pastoring a church in Calgary, he initiated a friendship with the religion editor of the Calgary Herald. Over coffee and a chat, story ideas were discussed and Callaway was invited to write some columns for the religion page. Callaway went on to build a high profile for himself and his church across Canada. “What you want to do is establish some personal credibility with an editor.  That’s the key,” explains Callaway.

Back in Port Perry, Emmanuel Pentecostal is also cozy with the local paper. “We just call the editor and tell him we have a story. He’ll come to our meetings, take notes. We invite them to come and find out about it,” explains Carol Anne Carter. “They’re always looking for stories.” Her advice: be open and friendly. Cultivate relationships.

Build them a story—and they will come.

What if you don’t have a confident communicator like Tim Callaway, or a savvy office administrator like Carol Anne Carter? Take a look around your pews. There may be a writer lurking there, or even just someone who’s willing to simply call up the local paper when something new is happening at the church, and leave the writing to the experts.

There is no doubt, however, that media coverage of the church will not always be about men making pancakes or the nifty new bell. Bad stuff happens in churches. The media are also interested in those stories, as well they should be.

Churches can also be prepared to deal efficiently with that kind of publicity. The potentially disastrous consequences of a negative story can often be cushioned when a credible relationship has already been established between church and community.

If a church sets up a communications team when times are good, they can spend some time in brainstorming sessions about how to handle the media when times are bad. Plan ahead how you would respond to reporters if bad guys burned your church down, or a child were molested, or the pastor ran away with the organist. Most media gurus advise against the overused “No comment” because it simply adds fuel to the media fire and can make the innocent look guilty. An open and honest strategy is best. “Every effort is being made to find out the truth” accuses no one, but reassures the public that nothing is being hidden.

Thankfully, for most churches there are nothing but good stories and good news to share. Whether your youth group is hiking to Honduras or the men are back in the kitchen, don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the media. They are a powerful presence in the community who, when respected and treated right, can help you to really let your light shine. 

Marianne Foscarini is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont. Karen Stiller is associate editor at Faith Today.

Let Your Light Shine Through The Media

  • Determine your media goals: Whom do you want to reach with your message and what is the best way to reach them?
  • Form a media team with one person chosen to be the main spokesperson to deal with the media.
  • Know your events well enough to know how to market them. If you have an event coming up, plan a very careful strategy that includes event staging, relevant message topics, or seminars.
  • If possible, arrange for keynote speakers or music guests to appear on news or entertainment shows.
  • Let the media know in plenty of time if you have an event or special new initiative coming up.
  • Spend some time thinking about the “angle” of your story. Ask yourself the blunt question: Who cares? If you can’t answer that question you are not prepared to tell the media about your event.
  • Web sites are often the first stop for a reporter looking into a story. Make sure yours is up to date and easily accessible.
  • Employ the golden rule: Treat the media as you would like to be treated—above board, fairly and, of course, friendly.
  • Learn how to write a press release. Type “write press release” into a google search and several tutorials will come up.
  • Order Making the News: An Essential Guide for Effective Media Relations (Novalis). Also, it can now be ordered by visiting www.makingthenews.ca or e-mailing jdl562009@gmail.com.

(Some suggestions adapted from Robyn Braley of UniMark Creative. When this article was originally published, it recommended an earlier version of Making the News which was formerly available from Windflower Publications.)

Other Articles
Jan/Feb 2005 Issue

Cover Story
Lights, Camera, Controversy:
The Risky Business of Christian Filmmaking

Featured Articles
Read All About It:
How Churches Can Use the Media for Free Publicity

Who's Afraid of Evangelicals?

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