Crisis Communication

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Seventeen students and three leaders are going on a spring break service trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. What if they were at fault in an accident, or if another crisis developed out of the week?

Every church needs to think about how they would handle a crisis if something in that “category” happened at their church. Wouldn’t you prefer to have discussed among your leadership how to handle a situation rather than a “now what are we going to do.” You want to communicate information about the crisis situation accurately and efficiently as appropriate. You want to manage the crisis well and the church’s communication about it.

A crisis should be considered as any event that will attract media attention and that has a potentially adverse effect on the public’s perception of the church. Several examples of potential crises are listed below:

  • vehicle accident of a group event in which the church designated driver is alleged to be at fault
  • staff/member who is alleged to be in serious violation of the law
  • natural disasters
  • accidents
  • acts of violence
  • vandalism
  • alleged misconduct, actual or perceived, by a member or staff
  • organizational dissension, by a member of the staff or constituency
  • alleged financial impropriety, budget shortfall
  • tragedies/injuries involving members or staff
  • litigation

The reasons the church wants to manage communication in the event of a crisis are:

  1. to assure that accurate information is communicated;
  2. to avoid fueling the crisis;
  3. to safeguard member and staff privacy rights;
  4. to maintain a positive image for the church; and
  5. to be responsive to media and constituents’ inquiries.

The most important reason for managing communication well is to honor God as we work through difficult situations.

The church has a number of different audiences with whom we communicate. The audience for crisis communication will vary, depending on the nature and scope of the situation. While the media is the audience that immediately comes to mind in a crisis, the church must manage crisis communication to the following audiences: members, Council members; staff; other church leaders; and the general public.

Because God is our ultimate help, in the event of a crisis it is appropriate to take time to offer a prayer to God, asking for guidance and care for those affected by the crisis. As soon as you become aware of a crisis (or believe a crisis may occur), you should contact the Senior Pastor immediately. The incident should be documented in writing. The Senior Pastor will evaluate the scope of the crisis and determine if a crisis communication team should be activated. A suggestion for the team is Senior Pastor, Council Chairperson, Legal Counsel or substitute Counsel, and others as deemed appropriate.

The Senior Pastor or the Crisis Team will develop a strategy for communicating about the crisis, dealing with various audiences, and responding to the media. The strategy may include prepared statement, letters, news releases, news conferences, and assistance from a media and/or legal consultant.

A contact person should be designated for the media, probably the Senior Pastor. All requests from the media for information and comment should be politely but firmly directed to the Senior Pastor. This will help maintain control and uniformity regarding communication and will minimize the potential for conflicting messages. It will also free you to deal with resolving the crisis.

If a member of the staff or an office bearer is contacted by telephone or in person by the media during a crisis, he/she should refer the person to the Senior Pastor or his/her designee. Immediately thereafter the staff member should advise the Senior Pastor of the media contact and the tone and nature of their inquiry.

When referring the media to the Senior Pastor, staff and office bearers should not say “No comment.” The “No Comment” response often suggests a lack of cooperation or that we may have something to hide. A more appropriate response would be: “We are saddened by this news. Our Senior Pastor will issue a statement as appropriate in regard to this matter.”

Just a little preparation can help you think through handling a crisis. We have opportunities through email, websites, Facebook, and other communication tools to accurately and appropriately communicate well.

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