Matthew L. Watley: Tips for internal messaging, marketing and public relations for your church
Proverbs 19:21 declares, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” As leaders in the Lord’s church, the responsibility to plan forward falls on us, even while being ready to pivot, stop or even reverse course as the Lord purposes and directs. Many of us are now thinking through what reopening will look like for our churches. Central to that planning is the vital role church communications: internal messaging, marketing and public relations will have on that reopening.
While pastors, by design, are professional communicators, the form and substance of our messaging will need to change given the various purposes and audiences we are seeking to inform, empower, inspire and protect.
It’s not enough to just begin planning for the reopening of our buildings; we must also invest serious time in mapping out what and how we will communicate our plans to the congregation. Informing the congregation of the steps the church is taking to ensure their safety is essential. It is also important to explain what will be required of those who will worship in person (e.g., masks, gloves, social distancing, etc.).
Also, providing a theological framework for the changes will be important, so that people feel empowered to make informed decisions whether to come out or stay at home to worship.
Finally, the tone of our church communications, while cautious, should also have some sense of celebration. Being able to worship corporately, even under restrictions, represents progress. There will surely be upticks and outbreaks in the future, so we should celebrate our victories whenever we can, and establish the church as being sober-minded and mission-focused in every situation.
As always, we will begin our internal messaging strategy with our leaders, not as an act of polity but practicality. Our leadership engagement is designed to do three things: inform, solicit prayerful discernment and empower feedback. By bringing leadership into the loop we are constructing an apparatus to drive messaging throughout the organization.
Questions and concerns often rumble through the congregation, and if unaddressed cause chaos and confusion. When leaders are intellectually informed and emotionally aligned with the message, they are then able to triage issues on the spot with information, guidance and personal equity.
Once the leaders are on board, all of our printed materials will be vetted by our legal counsel to ensure we are limiting our exposure and liability, and that we are aligned and compliant with all governmental regulations.
If your church is not equipped to do all of this heavy lifting, my church, and many others, are working hard to put procedures in place, which will be made available for you to tweak for your own congregation. We will develop signage, informational videos, pastoral letters, and a section on our website with FAQ’s to walk through relative to the new procedures for in-person worship.
All of the information will formulated to empower our members and to let them know we support their decision whether it is to come back immediately, or to return at some point in the future.
The branding of your church has never been more important. Many of our churches are seeing net increases in online viewership and giving. This suggests that our churches are reaching those beyond our core fellowship and congregation. For many of us, our constituency has become national and indeed global.
So, now is the time to think about crafting and presenting a special invitation to the church curious and people newly open to experiencing in-person worship. Social media advertising allows a level of targeting those persons most likely to visit your church facility in ways that traditional media does not. Now is the time to start building your church’s brand in the minds of those new prospects who will surely come into your sanctuary when it feels safe to do so.
I know it seems like the last thing that should be on your mind right now, but you really need to find people who can help you think through how you raise the profile of your church and introduce it to potential new members and viewers.
The sudden shift to online worship has taught us that the rules of the virtual game are different. While songs and sermons can organically go viral, there is generally more science and strategy behind what takes off, and what doesn’t, then meets the eye.
Your team needs to look at where your viewership is coming from, and which demographic is naturally drawn to your message. They need to study the key words that drive search engine algorithms to inform proper metadata tagging on your website. Your website and social media handles need to be optimized for ease of use and navigation.
Don’t see marketing as simply buying ads on Facebook; rather, see it as the lifeblood of your ministry. Each step requires a level of engagement that is planned and prepared with the same degree of attention to detail you would put into hosting a live ministry event.
People are in need of a word from the Lord, but will settle for clickbait, fake news and false hope unless your ministry exists in a space that allows them to see the kingdom alternative.
PUBLIC RELATIONS PLAN
The truth is that whatever your church does will be judged in the public square. If you open as soon as the all clear is given, you may be seen as insensitive. If you make special financial appeals for the support of the ministry rather than an outreach program, you may be judged as moneygrubbing.
Heaven forbid someone associated with the ministry contracts COVID-19 as soon as you return to the sanctuary. Even if it is not traced to your church, it is likely that the media will blame your church and perhaps you personally as the pastor. The point is that you need to direct the narrative of whatever work you are doing in ministry.
Sharing with local and online media affiliates the work your church is doing through partnerships with nonprofits and governmental agencies is great, but so are individual stories of members bringing food to seniors. Let the world into your personal angst of not being able to physically comfort families who have lost loved ones and the frustration of having to engineer virtual funerals.
The more you are intentional about shaping your public narrative, the better you will fare should your number come up in the cancel culture lottery. In that event, would-be defenders of your church and those who care to research will have tools to reframe whatever critique is being levied against your church.
A part of your public relations plan should include crisis communications. With so much up in the air, we must be prepared to manage the narrative, even as we manage the issue itself.
A basic crisis communication plan should include a designated spokesperson for the church who, if at all possible, should not be the senior pastor. This is important because it redirects the issue from being personality driven, to being institutionally focused.
Talking to the media is very different then speaking to the congregation. One’s first attempt at media messaging should probably not be in the midst of crisis. Of course, there will be times when the nature of the issue requires the senior pastor to go on the record, but this should be the exception and not the rule. Most likely there are persons trained in media relations, either within the congregation or your personal network; if not, a firm may be retained at minimal cost.
If possible, your church should adopt policies that specify the rules for outside media to engage your organization. Who should they contact? Where in your building are they permitted, or not permitted to go? Where are official statements from the church to be found? Simply having rules in place changes the dynamic of the interaction, and puts the church on a better footing.
Finally, the media should not be presumed hostile; and neither should they be treated as friends. To the degree possible, seek to establish a professional relationship with the press. Be reminded that media people are also people, people with their own needs and issues. Just never forget who they are, and assume that anything that is said to them at any time, in any context, is on the record, even if you are told that it is not.
The scary part about this crisis is that all of the previously established rules of society, church, the economy, science and government seem to have been erased. The exciting part about this crisis is that those who persevere will have a hand in writing the new rules for how our species functions as we move forward.
Whether crafting internal messaging for your church, marketing it to outsiders or managing its’ reputation to the public, remember rule No. 1 of public speaking is, “Know your audience.” As kingdom believers, remember, when we stand on the “stage” we are seen by the people, but we must always be mindful that we perform for the King.