It was a typical Monday when the news started to break. A gunman entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse just 10 miles from our church, and it didn't look good. In the end, he took the lives of 5 innocent girls that day, injured more, and left a community in shock.
I was the church's communications director, so my thoughts went to how we, as a church, would respond to such tragedy. Having come from an Amish background, several of our staff had friends and acquaintances in that community. We'd never gone through a crisis like this, so we pulled people together to come up with an approach and what we might say.
As the situation unfolded, calls were coming in from everywhere. Our lead pastor had grown up in the Amish community, so to the outside world, there was a natural connection between us and the tragic events taking place in that small town. And the media was looking for all angles of the story.
Within the next 24 hours or so, we were making plans to host the remembrance service for the victims — and the world. Our contact was a prominent Pennsylvania senator, and a nationally known Christian recording artist was to be his guest. Local and national news media outlets were coming, and we needed to be ready to receive them. Within hours, Ann Curry from NBC's Today show was on the scene, and we were making arrangements for an interview between our pastor and Greta Van Susteren with Fox News.
I learned a lot in those chaotic hours about how to respond in a crisis. Not every incident is as traumatic or large-scale as this. Whether it be a cancellation due to extreme weather, a response to a disaster, or communicating through an unexpected change in leadership, here are 5 keys that are sure to help you communicate better:
1. Plan Ahead
It's hard to plan for the unexpected. But you can be proactive with forward-thinking. How? Practice! Consider creating a hypothetical situation. Then, determine how you would go about producing effective and healthy communication that meets the demand. Here are a few questions to get you started:
Use answers to these and other questions to draft protocols and have them ready.
The most common protocol we had in place was our inclement weather cancellation. Living in the Northeast, we always pulled out our procedures around October or November. From year to year, some roles changed. Phone numbers were updated, or media channels were no longer used. But each year, we were readily able to communicate the plan when we saw a weather forecast that might jeopardize our weekend gatherings.
Our church was good at responding to disasters nationally and globally, sending teams, funds, or both. When tragedy struck and before we had a plan, we wasted time reinventing the wheel, so to speak. But after stepping back and planning proactively, we could mobilize much quicker and with a whole lot less effort. We just followed the steps!
2. Designate a Spokesperson
Who will lead the team in crisis communication? Assign this role ahead of time, if possible. Also, consider who would be the spokesperson that would take control of the situation when your congregants are gathered.
For example, do you know what you would do if the power went out in the middle of a service? If your auditorium/sanctuary is like many in the country, it can get pretty dark, even with emergency lights. And remember: when the lights go out, so does your PA system! Depending on the size of your church family, you may want to relieve your pastor of this responsibility. Designate a persuasive person who can be trained and ready for a crisis, can be a calming agent in chaos while commanding an audience.
This doesn't apply to every situation that would arise, but it should be a part of your proactive plan. It would be beneficial for your lead communicator and head of security to coordinate an approach that encompasses security, safety, and communication. This will avoid confusion and overlap amid a chaotic incident.
Once you draft this protocol, have your leaders review and approve it. Then, inform all team leaders that this protocol in place.
In a problematic or emergent situation, many want to help or even take charge of the situation. Who, beyond the head of security and lead communicator, will be involved? Who will direct first responders when they arrive? Who will take charge in the children's wing, and what should happen there? Establishing even a framework will better prepare your church.
This protocol is like an insurance policy — you may never draw on it. But having an outdated plan is almost worse than not having one at all. I'd recommend pulling it out for review at least once a year and update it as needed. If you include your contact names and numbers for quick access, confirm that the same people are still in place. Once revised, review the procedures and their responsibilities with stakeholders.
If there is an incident, and you find holes in the protocol, revise the plan. Not only is this helpful for you and your team, but it will assist those who fill your shoes in the future.
To learn more about crisis or other communication processes, contact us. We'd love to help your church do ministry better.
Don Wambolt has over 25 years' experience in leading church communications. More