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Crisis communications advice relayed to church leaders

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Churches that plan today for crisis can help their community understand who they really are — and even speak for God — when disaster strikes, a popular Christian radio broadcaster told 80 ministers at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Sept. 20.

“Handling a crisis situation is not something we often think about. We think it will happen to someone else,” said Ron Harris, host of the weekday “Morning Program” for KCBI Christian radio in Dallas. “Christians think public relations is something worldly, … putting a glitzy spin on bad situations.”

But a church that is prepared to deal with crisis can do a good job of giving their community “an honest reflection of their heart for ministry … and sometimes find they have a golden opportunity to speak for God” to a lost world, Harris said.

Harris addressed church leaders from nine denominations during the opening session of Southwestern’s Crisis Communications for Ministers Conference, two days of workshops held at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary’s J.W. MacGorman Conference Center.

The conference was designed to train ministers to respond effectively to the media during a crisis. Workshops helped them identify potential crisis points and develop a response plan and specifically addressed crisis situations in which children are victims or a pastor is accused.

In addition to a panel of local radio and television journalists, participants heard from an array of speakers with experience in crisis management, ranging from Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church, the Fort Worth congregation attacked by a gunman in 1999, and A. Larry Ross, a Dallas public relations consultant who works with clients such as Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Salvation Army.

Meredith addressed the preparedness of a pastor’s heart for crisis, noting that appropriate responses and clear communication depend upon the pastor’s relationship with the Lord. The Lord, Meredith said, is faithful and will bring the church through the crisis.

“Like Corrie ten Boom said, when the train goes through the tunnel the lights go out, but you trust the engineer to bring you out the other side,” Meredith said.

Recalling news reports earlier this year that Billy Graham had made a disparaging comment about Jews in the Nixon White House, Ross spoke to the challenge of managing the reputation of national ministries after negative publicity has emerged.

Graham’s public relations team went to work immediately, Ross said. They issued a statement in which Graham apologized, then he met with Jewish leaders and apologized to them, assuring them that the comment reflected neither his true feelings nor his long track record of positive relationships with Jews. The meeting ended with Jewish leaders publicly accepting the apology.

“We were scrambling to keep an asterisk off Billy Graham’s name in the history books,” Ross said. “We didn’t want his name coming up in future discussions of racism.

“A ministry’s reputation is one of its most valuable assets,” Ross continued. “The challenge for ministry management is that the decisions you make every day determine what happens when a crisis develops. You need to factor news and public relations concerns into every decision you make so you’re not cleaning up a mess afterward.

“You must remember that you ultimately represent the kingdom of God, not just an association, publication, church or denominational leadership,” Ross said.

Heather Senter and Chris Payne of the Witherspoon Agency, a public relations firm in Fort Worth, conducted a workshop titled “Media Training 101.”

Senter encouraged pastors and churches to develop a media response plan because “80 percent of the people on the news during the day didn’t plan to be on the news that morning. You can always prepare for a crisis, but you can never plan for one.”

Pastors and spokespersons, she also said, should be forthright in crisis — even if it is painful. They also should avoid saying “no comment,” and realize that “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer.

Payne discussed common pitfalls in media relations, such as failure to amplify answers, hesitating to comment on the record and not challenging an incorrect report.

Gary Morey, a former U.S. Air Force public affairs officer and current seminary student, developed the conference because of his belief that the church often fails to use the media to its advantage.

“The conference opened the eyes of many pastors and ministry leaders to the need for reputation management,” Morey said. “People would be surprised to know how many Christians there are in the news media who do not have an axe to grind and want to see churches in their community strong and having a vital role in their community.”

Other conference speakers included local media personalities such as NBC 5 News reporter Ramona Logan, Fox 4 News reporter and bivocational minister Shaun Rabb, WBAP assistant news director Freda Ross-Finley, KCBI Christian radio news director Sharon Geiger and Dallas Morning News religion editor Marcus Stewart.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: CRISIS COUNSEL.

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