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5 Simple Ways to Deal with the Media: Thanks to Donald Trump
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By Julio C. Muñoz
 
“I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about. I just don't know about.” Those are the words spoken by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that threw the doors wide open to the media. He was questioning the faith of fellow GOP candidate, Dr. Ben Carson.
 
It didn’t take long for national media to walk right through that door. Immediately news organizations began to ask, “Who are the Seventh-day Adventists?”
 
The Glenn Beck Show, New York Times, National Public Radio, Wall Street Journal, CNN, CBS, and MSNBC, were just a few of the media outlets shows up at our door.
 
As they began to research, more questions came: Why do you worship on Saturday? Who is Ellen White? Tell us about your relationship with the Catholic Church? You believe the Pope is the anti-Christ? You believe that the world will end soon? Do you believe LGBT men and women are evil? Are all Adventists vegetarian?
 
Some questions were easy to answer, some more difficult.
 
Fortunately, the North American Division (NAD) had retained the services of Kurth Lampe, a public relations firm based in Chicago. With the assistance consultants, the NAD was able to have a strategy in place. While critical, it is also important to remain flexible—things will not always go as planned. Above all remain calm!
 
A media crisis, managed properly, can become an opportunity for your church to collaborate with the news media to share positive awareness. If a church is unprepared or hostile towards the media, the news reported will be negative.
 
While dealing with the national media during a national election campaign is a new and unique experience for the church, the principles applied here are valid for dealing with the local press. Likely, a local church cannot afford to hire a PR firm, nor will it need to.
 
When encountering a media crisis, the first thing to do is contact the local conference communication director, appraise them of the situation, and coordinate a response.
 
Here are five simple steps to deal with any media relations crisis, no matter big or small:
 
1)    USE A SINGULAR VOICE—It is always best to designate ONE person to be the media contact, and for the most part, act as the spokesperson.  It is important to control the message. The last thing needed are multiple “representatives” speaking on behalf of the church, often providing conflicting information. Having multiple contacts will frustrate the media. The church spokesperson can also find experts to answer technical questions they cannot. The requests just need to flow through one designated person.
 
2)   “NO COMMENT” IS ALWAYS BAD—Under no circumstances is “No Comment” ever appropriate. It will be interpreted by most as an admission of guilt. For example, let’s say there are allegations that a leader in the church may have had inappropriate contact with children, and all of the information is not yet available.  Even if the worst fears are realized, the alleged perpetrator is considered innocent under the law, until proven guilty.
 
A more appropriate response would go something like: “Our prayers are going out to the alleged victim and their family. The Sacred Hills Adventist Church takes the safety of children in our congregation and our community as a vital and sacred responsibility. We always strive to create a safe environment in our church. As there is an ongoing law enforcement investigation, with which we are fully cooperating, we are unable to comment at this time.”
 
In that statement, all of the desired message points are touched upon: sympathy for the victim, responsibility for safety, and cooperation in the investigation. It is honest and does not comment directly on the situation.
 
3)    DO NOT USE INSIDER JARGON—This is often overlooked. We do it all the time, not just with the media. We often do it on our websites and news releases. We even do it when we talk to community friends. I first realized it when I was working for church non-profit. A web design company that was consulting for us was developing a map that showed our presence around the world. Many good Adventists—but not necessarily all—know that Western Europe and parts of the Middle East are organized as the Trans-European Division. At the time, there was also the Euro-Africa Division. During our meeting I kept plowing forward asking about how the map would look. Suddenly the perplexed web developer asked: “Where exactly is Trans-Europe and where is Euro-Africa?”
 
The same can apply to a local conference. Therefore, the Southern California Conference becomes The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Southern California. Terms like Pathfinders (a co-ed scout-like organization), Sabbath School, and Big Franks, need to be explained.
 
Keep in mind that some journalist may not be religious and therefore, baptism, deacons, and elders may have to be explained in a simple way. Assume nothing.
 
4)    ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES—The spokesperson and all those who interact with the media need to remain friendly and calm. Remember, not everything a reporter asks will be a warm fuzzy. There will be criticism and critical questions. Do not show frustration, impatience, or anger. Remember, you are representing a Christian Seventh-day Adventist Church. And at the end of the day, the journalists are doing their job.
 
The media is approaching a relatively unknown religious organization, and, often, a helpful answer will help the reporter do a better job. It is important to earn their trust by being friendly, direct, and honest to keep coming back to you for answers.
 
When things don’t go as planned—even during an interview—pray, take a deep breath, smile, and tell the truth.
 
5)     NOTHING IS OFF THE RECORD—It’s a line we hear in movies. A reporter and a subject talk off the record. “I will not publish anything we say in this conversation.” And for some journalists, that is probably true. They may want to get some background information, or see if they are headed in the right direction and they ask to talk to you “off the record.” Remember, there is nothing that obligates a reporter who says “this is off the record” to not publish what they were told. That does not mean reporters are dishonest or sneaky—although some may be as they are human—but things change. A producer or editor may insist they publish part of an off the record conversation. They may forget it was off the record. Or you may give them that tantalizing bit of information that can help them get that scoop on all the other media.
 
It is always best practice to assume that any and all conversations with journalists are “on the record.” It is okay to have a private conversation with a journalist and even an “off the record” conversation but assume EVERYTHING said may be published.
 
It takes time and experience to learn how to deal with the media. If you feel that you are a bit over your head, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. You probably don’t have the budget to hire a PR firm, but you may have a church member that works in corporate communication or public relations. Remember, you can always reach out to your local conference. A conference can reach out to a union. And a union can reach out to the North American Division for assistance.
 
Always remember:
 
    • Have a plan and speak with a unified voice
    • Avoid “No comment.”
    • Use inclusive language, NOT Adventist code
    • Stay Calm
    • Nothing is off the record
 
Julio C. Muñoz is Associate Director of the North American Division Communication Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.