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Are you ready to communicate in a crisis?

SUMMARY: Sometime. Somewhere. It’s going to happen. There will be a crisis or controversy in your organization that requires composed and practiced response and handling. Remember, your church’s reputation is on the line. When it’s time to manage a tough situation, will you be ready to step up to the plate?

United Methodist Communications offers a day-and-a-half workshop devoted to effective crisis response and planning. But get started now with these beginning tips on assembling a team and identifying the initial steps to your plan:

Just a start
Managing a crisis effectively starts with proper planning—asking the questions, putting together a plan and letting everyone involved know that a plan exists. It takes time and there’s no better time than now. So when a crisis arises, everyone’s first question isn’t "what should we do?"

In a crisis, speed counts. Having a crisis plan in place will help you to move more quickly by providing guidance in the event that a crisis occurs.

Who is your crisis team? Your plan should stipulate who should be on the crisis team, as well as the role and duties for each person. Include after-hours contact information for each individual on the crisis team. Set specific roles for each person and ensure everyone understands his or her role. Designate a team leader who will manage and direct the team. Make sure that you have someone who is responsible for communicating about the crisis, whose primary focus is on how the church creates and distributes its response, not on resolving the crisis itself.

What is the message you want to convey? Before talking with the media, the congregation or the public, know what you want to communicate and how you will say it. Make sure you have up-to-date information and be prepared to address the inevitable questions: what happened? has it happened before? who is to blame? what are you doing about it? how will you make sure it doesn’t happen again? But beyond answering questions, consider how you will advocate the church’s perspective and instill confidence that the church is doing the right thing.

Make sure that whoever is handling phone calls and e-mails sent to the church knows what to say and where to refer questions. It’s best to communicate with a single voice in a crisis, so designate a spokesperson who will serve as the human face of the church. As such, you want to choose someone who will be perceived as caring, compassionate, credible, trustworthy and knowledgeable about the crisis and how it is being managed.

How will you communicate with media? Do you have a media list? Do the media know how to contact someone after hours? Make sure the church’s Web site is regularly updated (that’s the first place media will go for background information) and have a team member assigned to update the site at a moment’s notice. You might want to take down any photos of parties involved in a crisis or issue a public statement reacting to the event. What happens if that person who usually updates the site isn’t in the office when the crisis occurs? Several people should be able to update the Web site.

How will you communicate with the congregation? You must communicate directly with your congregation so they know their church is handling and responding to the crisis. After all, they may be getting questions and comments from friends and family.

Consider how you normally communicate with your congregation. Rethink how you could use your regular communication vehicles in a crisis. The weekly church bulletin probably won’t be an immediate response solution, but it might be the perfect place to summarize or respond more thoughtfully. If you have an electronic newsletter, you could send out an e-mail to all recipients. Just remember, though, information you send out is public, so make sure you don’t mind having it repeated on the 6 o’clock news. If the crisis more directly impacts the congregation, face-to-face communication may be needed with some or all the members.

Should you care about online social media? Yes! Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. all may be sharing information about your crisis even before the news media. Whether you want the word spread or not, people most likely will be talking about your church in the online world. Monitor what’s being said. Use your own Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. to get out the message your church wants to convey.

Dealing with a crisis or controversy is almost sure to happen at some point, but planning and preparation can help you rise to the challenge. Be honest. Be accurate. Be timely. And be ready. You can do it.