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Don't worry: journalists won't bite (usually)

02 November 2006

 "GAY BISHOP resignation 'catastrophe'" (Daily Mail). "How America's Catholic Church crucified itself" (The Times). "US priest convicted of raping boy" (BBC).

It can be easy to think that the only press coverage the Church receives is negative, or, at best, covers only its rows and divisions. But this is to ignore all the positive material that appears, in both a national and local press.
  "Church heads condemn BNP" (Daily Mail). "Cash grant saves village church" (BBC). There's no headline, but The Times features a weekly "At Your Service" column, and includes times of services around the country: there's an 8 a.m. communion at Carlisle Cathedral on Sunday, if you hadn't guessed.

But it's the negative headlines that churchgoers tend to remember. This has fed hostility and misunderstanding between Christians and the media. But it doesn't have to be that way.

There are 16 national newspapers in the UK, dailies and Sundays, but an estimated 800 local and regional papers. An estimated 27 per cent of all newspaper readers read only a local paper. So, for a church, the answer to the question "how do I engage with the media?" is obvious. Do it locally.

Local newspapers are produced either daily or weekly, usually by a small team. It is their job to report the news of the local area, and news from churches falls into this category. That means that local newspapers will welcome interesting news stories from churches.

They are not alone. There are 550 local radio stations and 26 local TV stations in the UK. Each of these has to provide regular news bulletins throughout the day, increasing the pressure to find interesting local news. These are also obvious outlets for local churches.

PETER CRUMPLER, director of communications for the Archbishops' Council, says that communicating via local media must become a vital part of every church's strategy.

"The relationship between the local church and the local media is very important," he says. "I would love to see each church putting their relationship with the local media as part of their local mission.

"The local newspaper reaches many more people than come through the door of our churches, so it's a good way of extending the ministry of the Church.

"I have a concept which is mission-shaped communication. I regard it as part of the mission of the Church. It's a key part of an overall strategy."

But, he says, no church can expect to be reported on by divine right and without having built up a relationship with its local press and radio. "Every organisation in the 21st century has to communicate well and has to develop a positive and workmanlike relationship with the media. The Church is no exception. No local organisation has a right to coverage. You have got to work at it. But usually, the door is more open to churches than it is to business, because editors tend to give preference to non-profit-making organisations doing good things in the community."

SO, if doors are open to church news, why aren't more churches in touch with their local papers and broadcast media? For the answer we must go back to the beginning, and the perception that the press is hostile.

Martyn Halsall, diocesan communications officer for Blackburn, explains. " There's a lot of anecdotal fear. People hear of a church that had a bad experience, and they run a bit scared of the media in general. They look at its tabloid excesses, and fear that if they got involved they would be embroiled in something outside their control.

"Where relationships have gone wrong there's not been adequate forgiveness. I was talking to a priest who said he never talked to the media. He had a bad experience with them and had a policy of no contact. The bad experience was 30 years ago. He's still angry."

Mr Crumpler identifies another reason why churches may currently not be getting involved: the vicar's too busy. "It's often not done because it's not seen as a priority," he says. "Either it's seen in the parish as one more job for the busy vicar, or they try to find someone in the church to do it, but that person isn't sure what to do. So they feel uncomfortable.

"The scary bit is making that first phone call."

But, according to Nick Wormley, editor of the Leighton Buzzard Observer, it's well worth the church being in contact. The paper won an award for its coverage of religious affairs, much to Mr Wormley's surprise. "We were doing it as part of our normal work," he says. " We are always pleased to cover what the church is doing.

"We are a local newspaper, not The Sun or some high-flying national, where we would only be interested in murders, rape and pillage. Obviously, we are interested in those things; but even the most mundane thing is of interest to someone, so every jumble sale gets a mention.

"Part of our ethos is to be a service to the community. Perhaps some papers think that's old-fashioned. But names and faces still sell papers. So, anything that moves locally should go in. That's the philosphy we follow."

He goes on: "There's a publicity benefit in churches advertising and promoting fundraising activities, for instance. The main town-centre church, All Saints', is a wonderful medieval church in the middle of a hugely expensive restoration programme. There's a campaign running and clearly it's been in their interest to submit as much information as they can."

INDIVIDUAL CHURCHES testify to the benefit of putting out good stories. St Alban's, Welwyn Garden City, picked up an award for its dealings with the local media. According to the Vicar, Canon Peter Louis, this has had a very positive effect on perception of the church.

"We weren't good at making the community aware of what we were doing," he recalls. "We took someone on, and he was good at getting stuff into the press and on to the radio. It raised our profile, and people became aware of what was going on.

"It's also changed the bad press which the Church often has. Suddenly there was a positive awareness. It's absolutely changed people's attitude towards the church."

It is time consuming, though, Canon Louis warns. "It's not always been easy. And probably only one in five of our stories is carried. But that still means we've had between 20 and 30 stories published a year."

MAKING CONTACT need not be difficult, says Mr Crumpler. "I really want to encourage every single church to be talking about all the good things that they are doing. They can get ignored otherwise. Local press and radio are open to good material from local churches. They are rooted in the community.

"Build relationships with the local media. Seek professional advice if you can, from the DCO in your area, or from here at Church House, and be on the look out for good stories that demonstrate what your church is doing in the community."

Blackburn diocese is encouraging all of its parish churches to use the next five years to get involved with the media and tell them their stories. "At the very least, we'll be confronting and refuting the allegation that the Church is dead," says Mr Halsall. "When the media find that your stories stand up, are well written, and add to the interest of their media, they come to trust you and, as a result, the Christian communities that they are dealing with."

THE CHURCH of England communications unit runs courses on everything from writing press releases to dealing with challenging interviews. Cindy Kent, a presenter on Premier Radio, is one of its trainers. She says: "The more you know about a situation, the easier it is to handle. It's good to know the do's and don't's of being in a studio, but the most important thing is to be prepared in your own mind about what you want to say. 'Here are my answers, what are your questions?' is a good place to start mentally.

"I would like the Church to be far more pro-active, and tell the media about their good-news stories; to set up a relationship with their local media. 

"If you don't make the effort, the the chances are that the only things covered will be the 'organist runs off with vicar' stories."

Do you have any advice about working with the media? Stories to tell, warnings to pass on? Tell the editor (by post or at editor@churchtimes.co.uk), and we'll print the best next month.

Next Church Times surgery: tourism

Every diocese has a communications officer (DCO). Every priest, churchwarden or designated news contact in a church ought to have details of how to get in touch with him or her.

An experienced DCO can:
o Give advice on what sort of stories will attract attention, and how to present them
o Tell you about the media outlets in your region, hopefully with journalists' names and contact details
o Step in if you've got a big story running and nobody experienced enough to handle it
o Put you in touch with other churches that have experience in similar areas
o Provide general training for work with newspapers and broadcast media.

the web
There's a strong chance that your newspaper won't have the space to give all the details of your fête or concert. Many, though, are happy to carry website references. So make sure all the details of the event you're publicising are easily available on your website.

It's also a handy place for journalists to check names, spellings and contact details.

the church press
Have your remembered the Church Times in all of this? Don't be put off if we don't use your story, there are only so many old choristers Margaret Duggan can include in Real Life. But there's always the chance that something you're doing that's out of the ordinary will catch the news editor's eye, and make it on to the main news pages.

press releases
o Discover how your local paper likes to receive news: paper or email?
o Know that paper's deadlines: the most amazing story won't get in if the paper has already been printed. And lesser stories have to be in early to stand a chance.
o Attend to the basics: who, what, why, when, where and how.
Get the most important fact - the news element - into the first paragraph.
o Keep your press release to one page if you can, and certainly no more than two.
o Get someone else to proof read it.
o Include contact name, address and phone numbers.
o If going for a paper release, establish a clear layout and stick to it.
o Type it, double-line spacing to make it clear.
o Keep it simple. Remember that newspapers and magazines have a wide range of readers. Don't fret too much over the style: just make sure all the information is there.
o Ask yourself, is there a photo to go with this? These can help to sell the story to the newdesk; only, don't delay the press release if the photos aren't ready; you can indicate that photos are available. With digital shots, make sure the quality is good enough to reproduce well in a paper.
o Don't lose heart if your story doesn't make it. So much depends on what else is around at the time. Keep trying,
o Get the journalist name correct,
o Don't use Christian jargon,
o Don't phone a newspaper on its press day unless it's really urgent,
o Don't send anything at all if you don't want follow-up calls or interviews,
o Don't give all your contact details on a press release - and then be unavailable,
o Don't be afraid to ask advice from journalists or editors.

how to work successfully with the press

Have three points in your mind you want to get over whatever the questions.

Prepare a good opening answer. If it's radio, find out beforehand how long the slot is, so you can pace your answers.

Be straight with journalists. If they think you're hiding something, they might go for the jugular.

On the other hand, don't expect every journalist to come from the John Humphrys school of interviewing. They will often be on your side.

Build up a relationship with local editors and journalists. What are they after? What is their perception of the church?

Go easy with church jargon. Don't assume that journalists know what you are talking about, or have a church background.

Keep a look out for stories that show what your church is doing. In particular, are you doing anything that links up with a running national news story?

Remember that news is, by definition, something new and fresh. Don't ever delay.

Write a clear press release and get it to local media in plenty of time for their deadlines. Follow up with a phone call if the story's particularly urgent, and be available for interview if necessary.

If there's no one in your church talking to the media, find someone with some experience and a lot of enthusiasm. View it as ministry.

If there's a crisis, call your DCO straight away for advice and help. And they'd rather hear from you before a crisis comes.

A journalist calls with a tricky question. If probably won't ever happent to you, but just in case it does, you might wish to buy a bit of time. "Listen, can I call you back in five minutes' time?" You don't have to give a reason: let them assume that the milkpan is about to boil over, or that the dog is escaping into the road.

Use the five minutes to get your thoughts in order: what you can say, what you don't want to say, something tangential but positive. You might have to check a fact, or get some quick advice.

Then phone back. For a start, the journalist will be grateful that you called back, and when you said you would. What makes reporters bitter is when people say they'll call back and then don't. (Press officers are the worst offenders.) You're no longer on the back foot, the journalist is relieved, and the interview has a better chance of going well.

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