A Good Word 2020: Episode 3
Crisis: Striving for Excellence in Communications
In the third episode of A Good Word, a podcast offered by Baptist Communicators Association, Jim Veneman, BCA president, continues his conversation with Margaret Colson, BCA executive director, about church crisis communications, a topic that is extraordinarily relevant in today's crisis-ridden world. In this 14-minute episode, Margaret talks about the importance of Christian communicators modeling excellence in communications for church leaders who are watching and learning from them. She reminds listeners to focus on the basics of communications, what she refers to as the MACs of effective communications, and to avoid communications comfort zones. She discusses how God can use social media to advance His gospel, explaining how churches can respond to those who comment on social media posts. Margaret closes her three-episode podcast on crisis communications by calling on Christian communicators to keep love as the guiding principle in all that they do.
Hosted by Baptist Communicators Association
Contributors: Margaret Colson, Executive Director, Baptist Communicators Association and Jim Veneman, President, Baptist Communicators Association
Upload Date: Oct. 23, 2020, 8:00 a.m.
Jim Veneman: Hello again, everyone. I’m Jim Veneman. Welcome to A Good Word as we conclude our three-part conversation with Margaret Colson, our BCA executive director. The focus of Margaret’s work on her dissertation has been on crisis communications in the local church. Margaret, in the midst of the global pandemic and also the recent racial and political unrest wracking our nation, it’s been easy, as professional communicators, to see what not to do in terms of crisis communications. How can we help our church leaders know what to do when it comes to crisis communications?
Margaret Colson: Jim, I thought you would never ask that question! After my DMin is published, you can certainly point church leaders to my crisis communications guide for churches! But that’s going to be awhile. So, what about in the meantime? In the meantime, each one of us needs to be a model of how to communicate. After all, so much of what all of us learn is often caught rather than taught! So, take a look at yourself and think about what church leaders can learn from watching you, from modeling their communications after your communications.
Jim Veneman: Margaret, when we look at ourselves and our own communications, what are we really looking for?
Margaret Colson: Well, we’re looking for the basics. It’s time to get back to the basics. About 60 years ago or so, the legendary coach Vince Lombardi walked into training camp for the Green Bay Packers. He looked at 36 professional athletes, and these guys were at the top of their game. They were amazing athletes. He looked at these athletes and in the previous season, they had lost the national championship. Lombardi, holding a football in his hand, said five very important words. He said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” If we want to be successful, we have to remember the basics of communications and we have to make sure that we’re executing the fundamentals. We never, ever graduate past the basics.
So, when we’re thinking about crisis communications, are we carefully thinking through the MACs of effective communications? This is so basic, but it’s probably so basic we don’t always give it the attention it deserves, and it’s something that we can also share with church leaders. In our own communications, we might get in a groove of what, how and to whom we communicate, and we never deviate from that groove. We are comfortable; that’s our comfort zone. Effective communications means that we have to get out of our communications comfort zone. By doing that, we inspire church leaders to do the same. They can jump out of their comfort zones. Here are the MACs of effective communications Message, Audience, and Channels.
Sometimes we hit all three of those components with excellence, and then other times we fall short. Think of communications as a three-legged stool. One or two legs is not going to stand! Here’s an example—a real life example--of maybe a one-legged stool. A rural church was experiencing a crisis, and this church knew, without a doubt, that it had to get its message out. It had to communicate a couple of things: one, its knowledge of the crisis and then, secondly, its response to the crisis. So, in typical fashion, the church put its message on its website; and then it went even a step further and emailed church members about the crisis. But, here’s where the breakdown occurred: A friend of mine and her husband—believe it or not—do not own a home computer. And these people, my friends, are not 97 years old. No, they are in their fifties, but they just don’t have a home computer. They don’t want one. So, they could not look at the church website, and they could not receive an email. When they arrived at church on a Sunday morning, they walked into what was described as an awkward and unsettling atmosphere. Somehow, someone ventured to speak to them and to tell them what was going on, to tell them about the crisis. My friend’s response was, “I felt like we were the last to know,” and that was the last time that they entered the door of that church. Church leaders there had a great crisis message, and it was marked by truthfulness and compassion. There was nothing wrong with their message, but they failed to fully understand their audiences and the appropriate channels to reach their audiences.
During the crisis we are in right now, I’ve seen churches learn, more or less, “on the fly” how to communicate. Even my own church has come to realize the importance of using different channels to reach different audiences. Three generations of my family are involved at this church: my husband and I get most of our information from the church website and email; my dad, who is in his eighties and he is quite savvy when it comes to technology, but he gets most of his information from the church through postal mail and phone calls. And then my daughter gets most of her information from social media.
When we are communicating, we need to strive for excellence. In times of crisis, excellent communications is even more relevant and more vital, so we got to get out of our comfort zone. My comfort zone would be writing, but I’ve got to admit that a full crisis communications response would require more than writing messages. I’ve got to remember a multi-platform delivery of messages, and I’ve got to stand ready to tweak the messages for specific audiences. So, remember: Others are watching all of us. Others are learning from all of us. What we are communicating, to whom we are communicating, and how we are communicating can make an eternal difference!
Jim Veneman: Margaret, that’s an interesting point and so, so very true. You mention social media and your daughter. What kind of guidance can we give our local church leadership about social media, especially when it comes to a crisis?
Margaret Colson: Well, that’s a great question, and I would say in its most basic form, the basic lesson about social media and crisis is, “Don’t ignore it. We have to use it.” Some church leaders are actually surprised to learn that God can use social media. Not only can God use social media, God does use social media. Think about how social media gives churches a tool to reach way, way beyond the borders of their church! Imagine if a believer on the other side of the world saw a social media post from a church and was encouraged to stay strong in the faith. Or, imagine if a non-believer on the other side of the world saw a social media post and was inspired to explore Christianity for the first time. I would say that social media offers us great potential. In today’s world, we can’t ignore it; social media is essential in crafting an effective crisis communications response. It can be used for both informational purposes, such as this is the time a service is going to be, or it can be used for inspirational purposes, such as “God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.” But, of course, we must also remember that social media is not the only channel for our messaging; it’s one essential channel, with many expressions, but not the only channel.
Jim Veneman: Some church leaders, Margaret, it seems, are learning how to post on social media, but they aren’t quite sure what to do when people respond to the post. Do you have any advice?
Margaret Colson: That’s a question we have to give attention to. A lot of times, church leaders post on social media, and they do want a response, but they don’t know what to do when they get a response, especially if the response might be negative in nature.
Here’s a little something you can teach church leaders about responses that they might see on their social media posts. This comes from a book that’s called PR Matters: A Survival Guide for Church Communicators. It was written by Justin Dean. He categorizes commenters on social media into five categories. The first category, number one is those who leave a compliment or express excitement. We love to see those responses! Number two are those who have genuine questions. We appreciate these responses. Number three would be those with antagonistic or accusatory questions and statements. This is when we begin to squirm in our seats and begin feeling uncomfortable. Number four, spammers, and those who are deliberately leveraging the post to sell something or distribute malware. This is just downright annoying. Number five is malicious people who deliberately want to harm your church and seek out your posts to distract and bait you and your followers. A lot times we see those posts, and we go, “Woah, I didn’t see that one coming!”
Dean goes on to say how we can respond to these five categories. Number one, we can thank those who offer a compliment. For those who have questions, answer the questions. What about those antagonistic commenters? We need to handle with care! Maybe mark that package as fragile because if we engage, we are quite likely to enrage, and make it even worse than it was to begin with. It might be a good idea to hide these comments so that the world cannot see them, but only that person’s connections and friends. What about spammers? Delete; get them out of there. The truly malicious commenters, we can delete and block them from continuing to post.
In a recent opinion piece about social media, Dan Darling at NRB suggested that we should do as James instructed in the Bible, when James said, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” In an Internet age, Dan said, we might repurpose those words: “Be quick to read the whole story, slow to post and slow to outrage.”
In all that we do, even in malicious posts on our church’s social media pages, we, as Christians, should do as the Scripture teaches: “Put on love.” Our communications colleague Gary Myers, at New Orleans Seminary, has offered clear and concise words regarding all crisis communications, even social media. He said, “Keep love as the guiding principle.”
Jim Veneman: Margaret, we’re going to stop this conversation, at least for now. That is incredible information, a lot of incredible ideas, things we need to think about surely but actually things we need to put into practice. If you want to know more information about crisis communications, stay tuned for Margaret’s guide that is coming soon! You will find more information on how you can help churches discover their crisis communications readiness, develop a strategic crisis communications plan, enlist a crisis communications team and a lot more. Just keep in mind the headline: “Crisis will happen; prepare now,” and the subhead: “Crisis offers opportunity.”
The title of the guide is: At the Crossroads: A Crisis Communications Guide for Churches.
And, again, Doug Rogers, thank you for making this whole thing possible. Thanks to all of you for joining us, to hear some thoughts from Margaret on crisis communications for churches.