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In small congregations of all denominations, the church secretary or the pastor assumes the responsibilities of talking to the press when necessary or giving interviews. Volunteer committees usually arrange promotional activities to attract more members. In a large church organization or at the headquarters of a denomination, the role of public relations officer is a separate position. As public relations officer, you'll spend a significant amount of time writing and speaking to parties outside the church.
Before you start sending out packets of materials to the press or to potential donors and members, you must establish a database of contacts. In addition to the church directory of members, you’ll need to build an outreach file that includes contact names for all the media in your area, including television reporters and producers, radio personalities and newspaper reporters and editors. Read your local papers to find out who covers religion or call the local editor and ask for a religion contact. Include regional and national magazine editors if your church has a wide reach.
You may or may not be responsible for the church website, although you should play an integral role in its development and maintenance since you are the person most in touch with the church’s outgoing message. You will be in charge of creating a press packet that explains the church’s mission, provides a brief history of the church and its leadership and includes ways that people can become involved. Use flyers and fact sheets as inserts in a folder you can send to the media to introduce yourself initially. Greet new media with a copy of the packet and keep it updated.
Public relations is the business of getting your church's name in the news in a positive light. As such, you will be charged with coming up with events and newsworthy topics that you can share with your media contacts on a regular basis. Make yourself the go-to person for religious writers in your area by letting the media know you are accessible. Create events such as book signings, fundraisers and concerts and invite the media to attend. Offer to give them access to your minister or other lay people familiar with topical news going on nationally so reporters can provide their readers with a local spin on national stories.
To target the media and send them news, you will take advantage of the press release. A press release is a one-page notice to the media of an upcoming event that provides them with newsworthy data or information. Use a press release to announce a new ministry or the return of missionaries aligned with your church. Send out a press release if you’re bringing in a popular religious speaker or author or if your children’s ministry is presenting a new twist on an old Bible story. If someone from your congregation has done something newsworthy or been a part of an international story, such as being at the Vatican during the election of a new pope, send out a press release and offer to introduce reporters to the person. You may not get coverage for every notice you send out, but you’ll increase the odds of receiving positive press coverage by keeping your contacts informed and consistently giving them story ideas.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."