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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tips on Talking to the Media

Wendy Bailey, our Regional Presbyter, has posted some excellent advice on speaking to reporters. Experience has shown that, as the General Assembly makes some of its more controversial decisions, pastors may find themselves contacted by newspaper reporters and other media people, to get their views on the issue.

Publicity is good for local churches, and most pastors I know are more than happy to get the names of their church in the news. In this situation, however, it's important to be precise and thoughtful in replying to questions. Off-the-cuff responses can be easily misinterpreted or taken out of context.

So, it's a good thing to think in advance about what to say. Wendy's best piece of advice, in fact, may be that it's OK to ask the reporter to call back a few minutes later, to buy yourself a little time to formulate a response or scribble out a few rough talking-points for yourself. (Don't wait too long, though, because the reporter probably has a deadline looming.)

Please remember, too, that Wendy and I are more than willing to talk to reporters, if you want to refer them to us. You may also want to suggest that they talk to one of the Presbytery's commissioners to General Assembly. Monmouth's commissioners this year are the the Rev. Doug Chase, Brick; the Rev. Barbara Hicks, Lakewood Hope; Beverly Marsh, East Brunswick; Jim McGuire, Point Pleasant; and Young Adult Advisory Delegate Peter Stelljes, Yardville.

Now, here's Wendy's advice:

As we prepare for General Assembly, it is not unreasonable to expect that commissioners or pastors or presbytery leaders will be called upon to interpret the actions of the Assembly or explain what’s going on.  We will do our best to keep everyone informed of the many happenings of the assembly here on this blog … but I thought it might be a good time to share some tips I’ve put together for dealing with reporters and the media.
There are many times in which leaders in congregations and pastors will be called by the media for comment or information. Whether it’s a crisis or disaster in your congregation or community, an opinion on local politics or social issue, or a decision of the national or regional church, there are tips to make the interview more effective.


Depending on the issue, you may or may not be the best person to speak to the reporter. If your congregation is dealing with a crisis or emergency it is a good idea to identify one person who can answer questions and interview with the media. If you are not that person, it is appropriate to say something like, “I understand you have a lot of questions, the best person to speak to is …” and then give them the name and contact information for that person.


If you are the right person to speak, but you are not prepared to talk to the reporter when they call, it’s appropriate to say something like, “I will be happy to talk to you, this is not the best time, I will call you back.” You will also want to ask the scope of the story and ask yourself if there’s anything else you need to know from them in order to prepare. Find out, too, when the deadline is, so that you can reply in a timely manner. Then gather your thoughts, facts and information before calling back.


Reporters are all working on very quick deadlines. Be sure you get back to them as soon as you can. If you miss their deadline, or they move on to someone else, the story will be told without you. If you get back to them right away, even to explain what is keeping you from giving the interview right away, you will be establishing a good rapport with the reporter which will help you in this story and the longer term relationship.


Prepare the message you want to get across and make a list of talking points. Remember that although the reporter is gathering a story, you are the one who is telling it. Tell it the way you want it reported.


Think of the words you want to use to explain the issue or situation, but keep your points simple and concise. Remember that electronic media are looking for sound bites … seconds, not minutes, and newspaper reporters and bloggers are looking for quotes. Give them to them. Make their job easy. Most reporters are writing for a large and diverse audience, so this is not the time to use “church-ease” “presbyterian-speak” or show off your post graduate vocabulary


Be sure that you understand the question that you’re being asked and be sure to answer that question. The question may help to suggest ways to focus or phrase your response.


This sounds like it shouldn’t need to be said, but if there’s bad news or a bad situation, it’s ok to acknowledge that. Be direct and authentic about the situation and how you feel about it


Most reporters, even those focusing on religion, have no idea how churches operate, let alone the Presbyterian Church. Be prepared to explain even the most basic ideas to them, respecting their competency in the process.


Again, this shouldn’t need to be articulated, but it may be that the natural response is to say something snarky or argue with the reporter. Don’t do this. Always remain respectful.


If there is a story brewing that you know you will be called on, don’t hesitate to make the first step by creating a press release or calling your local reporter. This gives you the ability to shape the story. You can even suggest headlines that better capture the mood and ideas that you think are important about the story. The more work you do for the reporter the more likely the story will run as you would like.

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