NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Illinois pastor Fred Winters was gunned down while preaching to his congregation March 8, church leaders across the country rightly began asking tough questions about security. What they may have overlooked, however, were questions about how to communicate in a crisis: Who should speak? What should they say? Why should they talk to the news media? How soon, how often and with whom should they communicate? Basically, how can a church be prepared to handle communications when the unthinkable occurs?
Most large organizations, from multinational corporations to universities, have crisis communications plans, and so should churches, no matter their size. Whether yours is a mega-church with scores of staff members or a small congregation with a bivocational pastor, it’s vital to have a plan. And it begins by addressing some simple questions.
What is a crisis?
According to the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), every crisis begins as a problem. A problem becomes a crisis when it escapes the organization before its people can control it. Based on this premise, a church may define a crisis as a significant disruption in normal activities that stimulates media coverage and public scrutiny.
What types of crises should we expect?
Crises generally fall into two categories, according to ICM. First is the sudden crisis that occurs with little warning. Examples include natural disasters such as floods or tornadoes; accidents such as food poisoning at potluck suppers; sabotage or vandalism of church property; the sudden death of a church leader; bomb threats; and injury or death on church property.
The second type is the smoldering crisis, a potentially damaging condition that is known to one or more persons. According to ICM research, 77 percent of crises are of the “smoldering” type. Examples include scandals such as embezzlement of church funds; immorality or ethical breaches; picketing of church facilities; blogging campaigns against the church or church members; even theological issues that divide congregations and expose the church to public ridicule.
How do we plan for a crisis?
First, keep in mind that a crisis communications plan is distinct from an operational plan designed to deal with church security, evacuation procedures and other emergencies, yet it should complement any church’s operational plan. Here are tips for getting started:
- Define your crisis. State clearly and in writing the types of sudden and smoldering crises most likely to disrupt your church’s activities and stimulate media coverage and public scrutiny.
- Recruit a crisis communications team. Identify members who can serve in key roles during a crisis. Consider appointing a director of communications who manages the team (a trusted leader in the church who is a good organizer); a spokesperson (someone comfortable addressing the news media and other external audiences); a congregational liaison who ensures church members are communicated with early and often; an administrator who handles calls to the church and manages office support; and a writer who works with the team to draft clear and consistent messages.
Other team members may be necessary such as logistics specialists to set up a news conference, secure office supplies and arrange for meals and other necessities; graphic designers; photographers; telephone operators; etc. Keep the team fairly small and identify backups for each position. Publish cell phone numbers for each team member and backup.
- Know your audiences. List the key people with whom you must communicate in a crisis. This list might include church members, neighbors, the general public, the associational and/or state convention office, etc. Once you’ve identified who you need to reach, determine how you’ll reach them. Consider using your church website, e-mail lists, e-newsletters, telephone calls, a public address system, written or spoken statements to the news media, news conferences, etc. Assign the best delivery system for each audience; for example, church members may be reached most quickly via e-mail, website or telephone, depending on church size and organization.
- Know your mission. What’s the mission of your church? Make sure it comes through clearly in your communications. Think about how a crisis impacts your mission, what you must do to address the crisis and how you must stay focused on your mission in a crisis.
- Involve your congregation. Put together a simple step-by-step response plan that your crisis communications team will carry out. Make sure each member of that team, as well as your church staff, has a copy. Be sure your congregation knows you have a plan and how to alert church leaders in the event of a potential crisis. Also, make sure everyone has access to public statements during a crisis. This will enable and empower them to talk to their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Your members are perhaps the most effective spokespersons for the church — if they are informed, equipped and empowered. Finally, make sure they know that only designated spokespersons should speak with the news media.
- Be specific. Here is a simple step-by-step plan:
- Step 1 — Any church member should notify the crisis communications director immediately upon hearing of a situation or problem that may become a crisis. The director will seek to verify the information and evaluate the situation to determine whether it truly is a crisis or potential crisis.
- Step 2 — The director activates the crisis communications team, calling or texting each member immediately.
- Step 3 — The team meets within 30 minutes, in person or via phone, to assess the situation, prepare a short statement, develop key messages and put the right people in place.
- Step 4 — The congregational liaison (internal) and spokesperson (external) deliver an initial statement within one hour of being notified of the crisis. Church members should have access to all information being made public and, if possible, receive that information before or at the same time it is being released to the public. Use the most appropriate delivery systems — news conference, web posting, e-mail, etc.
- Step 5 — The team develops and delivers additional statements as more information becomes available. These are provided to church members as they are released to the public.
- Step 6 — If the crisis is a sustained one, the team calls upon additional resources to organize shifts, arrange for catering of food, etc.
- Step 7 — The team shuts down when it is determined the situation is no longer of media interest or public scrutiny. Other arrangements related to the church’s operational plan may still be needed — an alternative worship site if the church building has been destroyed, for example, and the crisis communications team may need to help transition to normal communications channels.
- Step 8 — Debrief. What worked well and what didn’t? How should the crisis communications plan be improved for future preparations?
- Practice. No plan is perfect, but practice will help improve your church’s plan. Assemble your crisis communications team once or twice a year for drills. Role play. Involve church members. Hold mock news conferences. Work the plan and adjust it.
Finally, consider media training for your crisis communications team from consultants recommended to you from reliable sources in your city or within your state Baptist convention.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources. Previously, he served on crisis communications teams for multinational corporations.)