Help the media to help you

Help the media to help you

By Karen Katafiasz

IN APRIL THE SISTERS OF ST. BENEDICT OF FERDINAND, IN will offer their 15th annual workshop for religious communities on revitalizing vocation programs. For the last seven years, that workshop has included a breakout session that I facilitate on working with the media. The following points are guidelines, suggestions and observations that I’ve put together to address some common questions and concerns that past participants have brought with them.

Whether your community has a communications staff or not—if it does, you’ll still have a significant role in media relations—I hope you find these tips helpful for carrying out one more important aspect of your multi-faceted ministry.

Understand why it’s vital to tell your community’s story to the public.

This may seem obvious, yet it’s good for all of us to remind ourselves why we’re doing what we do. You need to tell your story because you want your community to be visible; you want the public to have a clear and accurate image of your community; and you want to determine and shape that image as much as that’s possible.

Forty or so years ago, women and men religious—especially women religious—were very visible. The numbers were larger, the habits were obvious, and every Catholic school had religious on staff. Today we know that’s not the case. Some young Catholics grow up without any contact with religious at all. And older Catholics, who knew religious in the past, wonder where they’ve all gone. They start believing that religious communities are all dead or dying. Or, as someone wryly remarked, “Like the Shakers, only without the furniture.”

Remember the powerful image that Jesus gives us in Matthew’s Gospel: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Believe there are persons who would thrive in your community, persons for whom being part of your community would be the best way for them to seek and know God and to live out their life, persons who would enrich and strengthen your community by their presence. But if your light isn’t shining brightly, if it’s being hidden under that bushel, how will they ever find you?

Have a clear sense of your community’s identity.

You need to be able to communicate and explain the mission, character and ministries of your community to the media and, through them, ultimately to the public. Companies talk about identifying their niche, positioning themselves in the market, or creating their brand. They find out why customers choose their company or product instead of others. And they use this information in their marketing to expand their business. They focus on what they uniquely offer the public.

As a religious community, you can ask yourself: What makes your community distinct? What makes you unique? What differentiates you from other communities? What difference does your community make? What can someone who’s outside your community find meaningful and relevant and recognize as something they value too?

To effectively articulate your community’s identity, you can begin by examining your mission statement. Determine the key words in the mission statement that represent your community, and then formulate those words into statements that are clear and concise and directed to your publics. You can then use these statements as part of the information you regularly provide the media—for example, as part of a fact sheet or in a descriptive paragraph you place at the end of each press release.

 

SAMPLE STORY IDEAS

Immediacy  At the start of Advent, some members of your community have just released a CD of Christmas music.

Proximity  A member of your community making final vows is from the diocese or area that the media outlets serve.

Consequence Your community is planning significant construction projects that will affect the area.

Conflict Your community is holding a prayer service and rally against capital punishment the evening before a prisoner is scheduled to be executed in your state.

Prominence A celebrity who was taught by members of your community is the special guest at a fundraising event. An example from the Ferdinand Benedictines: Austrian Archduke Markus S. Habsburg, great-great-grandnephew of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria, visits the monastery in the town named after his ancestor.

Uniqueness One of your sisters is a pilot (or a veterinarian or in another non-traditional profession). An example from the Ferdinand Benedictines: A sister who is nearly 104 reflects on her life, including appearing as a grandmother in a Wendy’s commercial.

Respect individuals in the media as professionals.

Some members of religious communities have told me that in recent years they’ve become wary of reporters because of the negative coverage that has surrounded the sexual abuse cases. They fear that reporters will be looking for more scandals to expose, will distort the facts and will misquote or sensationalize their words. If you harbor this kind of distrust, your attitude can shape your interaction with the media in harmful ways.

Assume that a reporter has professional integrity, unless you have evidence to the contrary. Become familiar with the work that the reporter has done, so you have some sense of what to expect. The great majority of people working in the media are good, ethical individuals who want to provide their readers, viewers and listeners with accurate information. Be hospitable and friendly and treat media representatives as you would invited guests. Nearly always they’ll respond accordingly. Our communications staff has observed many reporters grow in their respect, support and affection for the sisters as they’ve covered the community over the years.

View your work with the media as a collaboration that is mutually beneficial.

You’re providing a service to the media by giving them content, just as they’re providing a service to you by sharing your stories with the public. Be proactive in suggesting coverage (called “pitching a story”) to the media. To be most effective in doing so, develop a keen sense of what’s newsworthy. Think like a reporter.

Here are criteria that journalists customarily use to determine newsworthiness. Possessing one or two qualities, of course, doesn’t necessarily make a story newsworthy. What matters is the mix of qualities and the degree to which the story possesses them.

  • Immediacy—Is your story timely?
  • Proximity—Do the people involved live or work in the geographic area covered by the media outlet, or does an event take place in that area?
  • Consequence—Does the situation or event have a significant impact on many people?
  • Conflict—Is there the drama of protagonists and antagonists or of good versus evil?
  • Prominence—Are well-known people part of the story?
  • Uniqueness—Is something about the story unusual or special? Does it have a certain level of human interest?

Study the media that you want to cover your community. Learn what kinds of stories they use, what information they like, when their deadlines are and how you can send them photos. Choose the right media for your story in terms of what they do best and what your story offers. For example, television news excels at telling a story visually, so if you’re seeking TV coverage, be sure your story has a strong visual element. A milestone anniversary of your community’s founding has more chance of making the TV news if your community is reenacting a colorful part of its history.

Choose media also by which audiences they reach. We know that young adults seem to be using less and less traditional media to get their news, so it’s important to have a strong Web presence and to explore newer technology such as podcasts, blogs and online video. But don’t ignore other media. Diocesan newspapers, for instance, especially if they have youth sections, can reach young people who are active in their parishes. And don’t forget other audiences. Parents and grandparents can play important roles in influencing vocation decisions. Raising the general public awareness about your community can help your vocation efforts in ways you can’t always foresee.

Help the media produce the best story possible

Be as accommodating as you can to reporters’ requests for information and interviews, and be flexible in meeting their time demands. When reporters call a few minutes before their deadline with questions—and they will!—work to get them what they need. The payback might just be free, credible publicity.

Do the research and fact-checking for news releases; be accurate and thorough. For media interviews and visits, provide reporters with a fact sheet about the community, especially if this is their first visit, plus a list of names and titles of the people being interviewed, as well as other relevant data on the topic.

For instance, if a media outlet is doing a story about a peace prayer service sponsored by your community, you want to include a copy of any official community statements, as well as perhaps a brief history outlining past positions your community has taken on peace issues. If a reporter is writing a profile of one of your members, compile some basic biographical data, such as dates that person entered your community and made first and final vows and a list of past and present ministry assignments and the years served. Information you can provide in print will have a greater chance of being used correctly.

If you let the media know that they can consistently depend on you for accuracy, assistance and cooperation, they’ll turn to you again and again. If you make it easier for them to do their job well, you will nurture a valuable relationship that helps both you and the reporters you assist.

Establish an ongoing relationship of honesty and trust with the media.

Never lie. And avoid saying “no comment.” (One reporter we’ve worked with for many years once told me: “If you answer a tough question, I’m probably going to do a story about it. But if you say ‘no comment,’ that may be the start of an entire series of stories.”) When you really can’t discuss something, be direct. You can say: “I’m sorry but those are internal, confidential matters that we’re unable to talk about publicly….” Be forthright. Don’t be elusive, and don’t be defensive.

If you don’t know an answer or feel you can’t answer at the moment, tell the reporter that you’d like to get back later with your response, if time allows. Listen carefully to the questions. If they contain suppositions that you don’t agree with, you can point that out to the reporter and—politely, straightforwardly—challenge him or her. How can you get reporters to ask the right questions? You can’t. But what you can do is give the right answers.

Prepare community members for media visits and interviews.

Inform your leadership when media will be visiting and discuss with them which members should be interviewed if there’s not an obvious choice given the interview topic. Community leaders may have information you lack when you’re looking for someone to talk to the media. Not only can they recommend someone who would be able to speak authoritatively, but they can also steer you away from anyone who might be experiencing some personal challenges that could hinder a good interview. As a courtesy, inform other community members of upcoming media visits when that’s appropriate. Our communications office, for example, puts a notice on the monastery message board when TV cameras will be in church during prayer or Mass.

Prepare your people for their interviews. Review with them questions they can expect and key messages they want to communicate. Discuss ways to deal with difficult questions. Reassure them if they need a confidence boost. Advise them on having an open, positive attitude.Suggest what they can—or shouldn’t—wear, especially for TV appearances (e.g., avoid white, narrow stripes, or loud patterns and glasses with lenses that darken under bright lights). And, of course, if you’re the interview subject, do all of the above for yourself!

Media outlets tend to present situations in black and white rather than subtle shades of gray. And when they do offer nuance, much of their audience won’t see it. That’s why it’s a good rule to keep your messages as simple and as clear as possible

Someone from our communications staff generally is present during media interviews. (There are exceptions, such as when an interview takes place some distance from the monastery or when a sister is being interviewed in her ministry role, such as principal or pastoral associate.) When you, or a communications person, is present, it’s important to stay in the background and not intrude on the question-and-answer process. What you can do is provide visible moral support to the person being interviewed and offer to check facts or clarify any unresolved matters for the reporter.

Realize that reporters, even though they may strive to be objective, will still see life through their own lens.

Know that they will make assumptions based on their own experiences, and they may be as influenced by stereotypes of religious as much as anyone else. Work with reporters to correct their misconceptions.

Offer to answer further questions, review quotes and check facts. But don’t ask to read a story before it’s published. This may sound as if you want to approve the piece. A few writers have surprised us by asking us to “check” an article before publication. What we discovered is that they corrected factual errors but usually retained their own interpretations and analysis even when we pointed out how they were not quite on the mark.

Expect reporters to get Catholic tenets and terminology wrong, even if they are or have been Catholic. Try to anticipate their confusion. They may misunderstand and misuse such terms as religious, clergy, brothers, priests, vows, celibacy, convent, monastery. When you provide the media with background material, you can include definitions of terms that are relevant to the topic. For example, if your members are being interviewed at various stages of formation, explain words like postulant, novice and temporary professed.

Adjust your expectations.

Despite all your best efforts, the results may not be what you had wanted or hoped for. But the results can still be positive and valuable. Reporters and editors will have their own perspectives and will shape the story their own way. Readers, viewers and listeners will have reactions and interpretations that you don’t expect. Do all you can, then let go of the outcome. Express your thanks to the reporter for the coverage. If there’s a significant inaccuracy or error, you can request a correction, but don’t dwell on most mistakes.

A great majority of people will take away from the piece only a very general understanding, and errors won’t get in the way. Several years ago, a travel writer wrote about our monastery in a Chicago newspaper. The article, although it contained a number of inaccuracies that would have been significant if in a book, was quite affirming, and that’s what readers remembered. Several couples told us they traveled six hours to visit here because of that article, and they have since continued their relationship with our community.

Working with the media can be filled with challenges, but know that the effort is worthwhile. It is deeply gratifying to see the public learn the good news about your religious community—and to realize, as well, that you may have enriched a reporter’s perspective along the way. And as you work with the media, don’t be dismayed if you stumble at times and make mistakes. Take heart with this advice from an author unknown: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that experience first came from bad judgment.

Karen Katafiasz is director of communications for the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana. She has also worked in newspaper and magazine journalism, education, and book publishing and is the author of eight small self-help books.

 



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