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IMB discusses communications strategy

NASHVILLE (BP) — The International Mission Board will continue its longstanding practice of relying heavily on its overseas communications teams for missionary news stories, photos and videos following the closure of its Richmond Communications Center, a board spokeswoman told Baptist journalists on a Jan. 20 conference call.

From the outset, it was apparent the two groups of participants in the call had different goals. The three IMB staff members on the line — Julie McGowan, public relations leader; Terry Sharp, director for state, associational and urban mobilization strategies; and Terri Willis, director for national relations — sought to gather questions and information for IMB President David Platt in advance of a Feb. 16 meeting scheduled with leaders of state Baptist papers. McGowan noted the call was not a “press conference.” The journalists expected to ask questions and receive answers on the call. Some expressed their opinion that Baptists need additional information on IMB communications strategy before mid-February.

In an email exchange following the call, at least five Baptist state paper leaders noted their frustration at a perceived lack of information.

The Richmond Communications Center closure was announced Jan. 14. In making the announcement, Platt said 30 communications employees who were terminated in conjunction with the closure “are some of the kindest servants and leaders in the Richmond office. IMB is indebted to them on many levels. In the days to come, we want to express our honor and appreciation for the countless ways these brothers and sisters have served Christ through the IMB.” Please see related story.

McGowan said on the call IMB leaders and members of the Baptist media “will be working together to determine” a new communications strategy before April 29, when the Richmond communications office is scheduled to close.

A significant portion of the IMB’s communications strategy apparently will remain unchanged. McGowan said “some of the tasks that are currently done by the Richmond communications office will be done by the existing overseas communications offices.” She added, “A lot of content you currently get is worked in collaboration with our existing overseas communication teams.”

The board’s two overseas communications teams are based in Eurasia and Asia, with the Eurasia team primarily relaying news from IMB personnel in Europe and Africa and the Asia team reporting primarily on personnel in Asia.

In addition, IMB communications leaders “have talked some” with Baptist Press managing editor and director of operations Shawn Hendricks about developing a strategy for continued distribution of IMB news through BP, McGowan said.

Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal, said state papers “have always appreciated the news coverage from the field and basically world-class photography that we get from the IMB.” Baptist journalists “expect it to continue.”

However, Ledbetter said members of the Southern Baptist media “have really needed … help in understanding” IMB changes “in strategies and philosophies and missiological efforts.” He expressed concern, based in part on the call, that obtaining such information has seemed “difficult” — a concern echoed by others.

Among questions asked on the call that IMB was not yet prepared to answer:

— What website or person will provide journalists with articles and photographs going forward?

— Why has Platt not yet discussed communications cuts and strategy changes with members of the Baptist media?

— Will Platt address the media before his meeting with state paper leaders Feb. 16?

— Were IMB trustees informed of the Richmond Communications Center closure before it was announced?

— What roles are served by communications personnel who were retained?

A question was also raised during the call about whether or not IMB trustees’ affirmation of the board’s change in strategy included a vote — a question that was addressed in an earlier BP story.

Despite the unanswered questions, state paper leaders expressed on multiple occasions during the call their support for the IMB and its leadership.

Allan Blume, editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, said he is “troubled” that Baptist journalists have not yet received “answers [on] the whole picture of what communications looks like,” but he noted he is “incredibly supportive and grateful for Dr. Platt’s leadership.”

As the IMB’s reset continues, McGowan asked Southern Baptists to pray for smooth transitions for those impacted by this strategic reset, remembering also those who have accepted the board’s “voluntary retirement incentive,” those considering the current “hand raising opportunity” to transition away from the IMB and IMB senior leadership.

Kevin Parker, editor of the Baptist New Mexican, closed the call by asking if he could pray for McGowan as she seeks to communicate changes in IMB strategy during a challenging period. Other participants in the call, including Lonnie Wilkey of Tennessee’s Baptist & Reflector, also expressed support for McGowan.

Parker prayed that God would help McGowan “to have extraordinary strength and wisdom and insight that she needs to gather information, to share information, to network people together.” He prayed Baptist journalists would “be as helpful to her as possible in that process.”