NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even under normal circumstances, a call
from the news media to your church can be nerve-wracking. But it doesn’t have
to be that way. Consider the answers Rob Phillips, communications director at
LifeWay Christian Resources, provides to these commonly asked questions about
working with the news media.
Q: Why talk to reporters?
A: It’s our responsibility. Whether working for an SBC
entity such as LifeWay or serving in a local church, our ministries impact the
public and we have a duty to speak openly and onestly with people. Besides,
the news media are conduits for reaching our audiences with important messages,
especially in times of crisis. In this day of 24/7 news, blogs, Twitter and cell
phone videos, someone is going to tell our story. Shouldn’t it be us?
Q: Who decides what news is?
A: The news media. We can influence the news — suggest
angles, pitch stories and help shape the reporting of events, but ultimately
news directors and editors decide what gets played. However, the emergence of
social media is diminishing the control of news and information once held by
newspapers, radio and TV stations. In many ways, this is a positive
development, but not without its risks since the social media are largely
Q: What if we think reporters are out to get us?
A: Generally speaking, reporters are out to get the story.
There are clear cases of bias in the media, but even the most slanted reporters
almost always give the other side a chance to speak. Keep in mind the
difference between a news story, analysis and commentary.
Q: Which reporters should we talk to?
A: All of them, but in a crisis you may need to prioritize
according to ministry and business needs. Even if you don’t like some
reporters, remember never to pick a fight with people who buy paper by the ton
and ink by the barrel.
Q: Who should talk to reporters?
A: Designated spokespersons from your church or
organization. If possible, they should be media trained. This will prepare them
to share key messages in addition to answering the questions.
Q: If I’m the spokesperson, what should I say?
A: Stick with what you know — your area of expertise. Don’t
speculate. Don’t discuss confidential or privileged information, such as
employee records. Say, “I don’t know,” when you don’t know. Most importantly,
when you’ve answered the question and bridged to a message, stop talking.
Q: What if a reporter uses only one quote?
A: Reporters tend to look for “sound bites,” not monologues.
Also, editors can be merciless on reporters’ copy, and other pressing news
items may have reduced the “news hole” for the day. It’s good to have two or
three key messages when you agree to an interview. Keep repeating the messages
as you answer the reporter’s questions.
Q: Why can’t I see the story before it’s printed?
A: Frankly, it’s offensive to a journalist to be asked that
question. Reporters talk to lots of people, work on tight deadlines and submit
their stories to editors. Good writers will call you to check facts before
filing a story. As a safeguard, you may want to record your interview. It might
encourage the reporter to quote you accurately, and you can always post the
interview on your blog or website if you think you were treated unfairly.
Q: When should I say “no comment?”
A: Never. These two words imply that you’re guilty or hiding
something. However, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t
discuss this because …” when you don’t have anything to say; when you’re not
the designated spokesperson; when you’re not prepared; or when the information
is privileged (like personnel files), proprietary (competitive data, for
example) or in litigation. In other words, it’s OK to decline comment when you
have a good reason, but you should share that reason with the reporter rather
than use the fateful words “no comment.”
Q: Is it OK to speak “off the record?”
A: Generally, no. A good rule of thumb is that anytime
you’re in the presence of a reporter — even at a social function or church —
consider yourself on the record. An exception is the “background” interview
during which you provide non-attributable information to a journalist to help
shape a story or increase the reporter’s understanding. Trust must be
established between you and the reporter for such an interview to be granted,
or you may end up wishing you had said “no comment.”
Q: How do I fix it if the reporter gets it wrong?
A: First, assess the damage. Is a misspelled name
or a minor factual error worth your outrage? If the story is negative to begin
with, do you want to risk a second negative story? If the errors are
substantial, however, begin by contacting the reporter who may print a
correction or even a retraction. If you reach an impasse, contact the editor
for that section of the paper, write a letter to the editor or post a comment
on the newspaper’s website (many online newspaper editions allow this). Keep
your church website, and perhaps your blog, in mind as potential places to get
Q: What should I do if a reporter calls me?
A: Get the reporter’s name, number, deadline, subject and
other specifics. Promise a call back — and keep your promise. Then work through
your organization’s media response procedure to provide an appropriate response.
You are never obligated to provide an on-the-spot interview just because a