Your church probably has two responses to the notion of engaging with the media. It’s either extremely nervous, or it simply sees local newspapers and radio as tools for promoting events.
That’s the typical attitude of most UK churches, according to Natalie Williams of Jubilee+ and Kings Church, Hastings. She led a media day for Commission churches in November, inspiring us to see the media, particularly our local newspapers, in a new light.
Natalie knows what she’s talking about. Having trained and worked as a journalist, she spent much of her career building positive relationships with the media and influencers.
One of her first post-journalism roles was getting the media to publish good news about crime, on behalf of a police force. (Just to be clear – she wasn’t trying to sell the virtues of crime, but to share stories that helped reduce fear of crime).
The result is a wealth of experience in working with the media to promote ‘good news’. Positive news has a positive impact on the community.
So, there’s a challenge for us: how can our churches work with the media to make people feel valued, respected and safe in the places where we live?
Journalists are not your enemy
As part of her introduction to the day, Natalie wanted us to understand that most journalists are keen to do good, especially at a local level. Most want to tell stories that inspire and encourage others. Surely our churches can be a rich source of uplifting tales of lives being changed for the better?
Don’t confuse the motives of journalists with those of their editors. Bad news draws a crowd and editors use shocking headlines to create sales, whether it’s in a paper, on radio or online. But this doesn’t mean journalists are always looking for a negative angle on a story.
I’m frustrated that lots of front-page headlines on my local newspaper include words like ‘chaos’, ‘horror’ or ‘crisis’. But once you’re past that, much of the content is more upbeat. Local media thrives on the highlights of life in our communities: community group activities, school events, achievements by our near neighbours and more.
Natalie’s advice to churches is to start reaching out to local journalists. Find out who’s responsible for reporting church news and invite them for coffee. Open the conversation with the question ‘what can we do for you?’ and see where it goes.
Local media is more than a free publicity machine
The reality is, most people aren’t very interested in what your church has to say.
We can lose sight of this because the internet has made it really easy for us to publish our own announcements and stories, through our own websites and social media networks. But these messages only go to people who already like you and have chosen to listen in.
The challenge for us is to reach out to new audiences, to engage those outside the church’s own communication channels. Getting a message to these people means using the media they choose to consume.
Don’t assume that the so-called ‘traditional’ media is becoming irrelevant. Local newspapers and radio still speak to significant audiences and still command respect. The messages they broadcast have the power to influence many lives.
All of this means we should stop thinking of them simply as a route to free publicity. How about thinking of local media as potential partners in serving our community? While not all journalists will share our faith (don’t forget that some do), most will share some of our vision for shaping a secure, stable environment where people to live.
By coming alongside our journalists and providing them with stories, we can help change the tone of local news. At the same time, we can help people see local church as a force for good, and more importantly, as a source of hope.
You won’t often, if ever, get the chance to preach Jesus through local media. But you can help draw people to a place where they can encounter the power of the gospel.
Top tips for engaging with local media
Here are three takeaways for church leaders from the Commission media day:
- Consider investing just one hour a month in talking to local journalists.
- Ask them what they think makes a good story and use that to find stories from your own church.
- Don’t ask what the journalist can do for you; ask what you can do for them.
This is the first of several articles based on the Commission media day.
It’s by Andrew Knowles of Weymouth Family Church, Dorset. Andrew is leading a team that’s helping Commission churches improve their engagement with the media.