Key 73 is a continent-wide campaign to proclaim the Gospel to the masses. One of the prime channels to the masses is the press. And since the Key 73 strategy is that each local church do its own thing to communicate the Gospel, blessed is the congregation (and pastor) that can harness the press for effective outreach. It can be done. Writers Shirley T. Angle, Barrie Doyle, and Edward E. Plowman offer some suggestions as to how.
If non-believers were to form their opinion of Christianity from stories about the church and Christian life printed in your local newspaper, what would they think? Does the weekend “church page” give an accurate, interesting, and compelling picture of what Christianity is all about?
If not, what can you do about it, short of spending years in journalism classes and on a newspaper beat to become a crack reporter yourself?
First, acquire some basic knowledge of the press in general and your local newspaper(s) in particular. Large city dailies may have one or more persons working full time as religion writers. Priority is given to stories of interest to a wide audience. Competition for space is fierce, and so the threshold of story significance is higher at the big metropolitan paper than at the suburban weekly. The latter may ungrudgingly run a notice about a guest speaker’s appearance at your church, but chances are slimmer at a big metro daily. (Better buy an ad instead.)
Church conferences, evangelism campaigns, and sermon topics are not usually “high-threshold” news. But if the church runs a “meals on wheels” program for the elderly, a community hotline for people in trouble, or a food-distribution project in a ghetto, almost any editor would spot the makings of a good story. Besides, the Church stands for a selfless message and Saviour, and this is what should come through in the newspaper, whether the stories are about people or events. Regrettably, much church publicity today projects an image of self-centeredness.
In contrast to the last decade, evangelism is news nowadays. Virtually every religion editor is aware of Key 73 and is on the lookout for local angles, especially the really newsworthy ones involving cooperative and community-wide outreach.
Not every paper, though, has a religion editor. For the average religious news-handler, religion is only one of his areas of responsibility (and perhaps not his most interesting!). He may not be plugged into the church scene, and he may know little about Key 73.
This leads to the second admonition: be understanding in your dealings with the news-writer. Any news story turned in by an untrained person is likely to be rewritten. This should be seen not as an insult but as a matter of policy. Supply the facts. Answer questions straight-forwardly. Observe deadlines: get the story in early enough, arrange appointments at less rushed times. Be sympathetic if space priorities crowd your story off the page. Don’t try to force an unwanted story on the news person.
Unfortunately, some ministers—including some evangelical ones—have been poor personal witnesses in relations with the press, spoiling the climate for others. A survey of fifty-six religion editors by Canadian minister-journalist Leslie K. Tarr shows animosity in clergy-press relations. The editors spoke of unfriendliness and negative attitudes toward the press, poisonpen letters, a tendency to be evasive and sometimes even untruthful about facts, and carelessness with deadlines. Some sample comments:
Too many clergy feel that the church page is a propaganda sheet.
As a group the clergy seem to know less about effective communication than any other group.
Evangelicals and Catholics are the hardest to deal with even though their respective viewpoints are covered. I have found only a handful of evangelical types who were really pleasant and cooperative, yet I try to bend over backwards to present their case as they want it presented.
Perhaps some of the comments represent a bias on the part of editors, but that is all the more reason for ministers to exercise the spirit of Christ in their dealings with the press.If you haven’t done so yet, arrange to meet, at his convenience, the person who handles religious news. Find out what kind of stories he’s looking for. Inquire about deadlines. Provide leads to stories of general interest, even outside your own church. Tell him of any persons in your congregation who might make interesting features. (What they do doesn’t have to be religious; it’s what they are in what they do that counts.)
Offer to explain Key 73—its history, aims, and scope. (Make sure you have enough facts yourself, first. Write to Key 73, 418 Olive Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63102, for full information.) Brief him on what is happening locally under Key 73 impetus. Provide names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Double-check for correct spelling of names.
Thereafter, keep him informed about what’s happening. Put him on the right mailing lists. Invite him to important meetings. If he doesn’t provide as much coverage as you think he should, love him anyway and keep the peace. (Never go over a newsman’s head to his boss. Instead, at the same time you send a release on important stories to the religion reporter, send one to the “city editor.” This should budge any news person who is balking because of personal prejudice.)
But basic knowledge and amiable relations aren’t enough to gain you news coverage. You must also do something worth reporting. No public-relations program can cover an inactive, selfish, or irrelevant church scene. This applies to both the local congregation and the wider fellowship, denominational or interdenominational.
This point needs to be discussed in the various ministers’ meetings. Outreach through the press should be a consideration in planning certain events. In fact, the weekend church page itself (and the image it projects) ought to be on the agenda for at least one meeting of the local ministerial alliance. Remind the brethren of news priorities (examples of love and compassion toward others by members of the Christian community, examples of changed lives and Christian dedication, taking a stand for Christ in the presence of secular forces, significant acts of the organized church at work in the world—such as Key 73.) If one does not already exist, perhaps a committee could be appointed to deal strictly with media outreach, drawing on the gifts and skills of members in the congregations.
Key 73 offers a prime opportunity for churches to do something newsworthy in evangelism. The doors to the press may never again be so open. Enter!
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