I wrote a letter to the leadership of The Episcopal Church the other day.
With the Church’s triennial General Convention coming up next summer, plans are being made about how the Church Center staff will work with the media that usually show up to cover it, both from secular and religious news organizations.
The last convention, in 2006, was a textbook example of how NOT to do things. I’ve offered some suggestions as to how 2009 can be a better experience for the Church, the reporters doing the job and their readers.
I’m still waiting to hear from the presiding bishop or the president of the House of Deputies about this. If I hear anything, I’ll pass it along.
To: The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop
Ms. Bonnie Anderson, President, House of Deputies
From: Jim DeLa, president, Episcopal Communicators
Re: Media relationships and communications strategies at General Convention
Date: September 23, 2008
Episcopal Communicators represents a network of professionals who cover a vast array of communications skills, who possess a keen knowledge of the workings of The Episcopal Church and who carry deep passion for our work and for our Church. We are looking forward to General Convention 2009, and we are writing to offer our services to make communications at this General Convention run smoothly and professionally.
We realize that the hiring of a new Director of Communications is coming at a critical time as it pertains to General Convention, and Episcopal Communicators are ready to serve. We are offering our services at this time so that a thorough search can take place and you will have the knowledge that communications and media relations will be in capable hands.
We offer here our observations and suggestions of how we might best assist at next year’s General Convention.
Those in charge of media relations must lose the combative attitude toward both secular and church press that was exhibited at General Convention 2006.
Episcopal Communicators received numerous complaints from its membership, as well as from the secular press, for the uncooperative and, at times, hostile attitude of the Church Center’s communication staff. They ranged from accredited journalists not being allowed access to their own press area, to red-vested volunteers deliberately standing in front of photographers during events — church media seemed to be specific targets — in an apparent attempt to restrict coverage.
All of us — the Church Center staff, the church media and the secular press — are partners in telling the story of The Episcopal Church. A positive media relationship will make it possible for The Episcopal Church, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops to maintain the best public face and will create a context within which you can work with the media in the future.
One observation from Columbus that we feel illustrates the dysfunctional relationship in 2006 was the introduction of a ban on photography and personal recording devices in the House of Bishops’ chamber.
Photography in the bishops’ chamber never created problems in the past. Simple rules (such as no flash photography) should be enough to preserve decorum in the room. There is no logical reason for different rules for each chamber.
Likewise, personal recorders have become reporting tools as basic and unobtrusive as a pencil and paper, and dramatically improve the accuracy of reporting. This accessibility would facilitate the most accurate story being told and gives an illustration of our polity to the outside world. We strongly urge that you lift both these bans in Anaheim.
Another problem that kept cropping up in Columbus was access for photographers. The locations selected by convention staff for placing photographers, particularly in the House of Deputies chamber and at Eucharists, showed a clear lack of knowledge or concern for the media’s needs. Because of the distances between access areas and the podium/altar (at times 100 yards or more), the powerful visual images that could have told the Church’s story in dramatic fashion were impossible to obtain.
We’d like to offer some solutions. For events where space would be limited, such as the floor of the House of Deputies, Eucharists or other special events, a “pool” could be established, where a limited number of rotating writers and visual journalists would have access and the responsibility to share articles and images with other reporters.
The pool could utilize a small area close to the podium or altar for discreet photography, or easier still, simply be allowed to roam the area. With a limited number of journalists in the pool at any given time, disruption to any proceedings would be negligible.
Episcopal Communicators is willing to organize and staff this pool in Anaheim to ensure open and timely access of coverage. As you are choreographing these major events, layout for the media placement should be a principal piece of that planning, and we would like to consult with you on these matters.
The economy and the changing nature of the media
A reality of our times is that media outlets are making drastic cuts to budgets and personnel. In the current economic environment it is likely that many members of the media might have to make choices of whether or not they can even come to Anaheim, let alone stay for the duration of General Convention.
One recommendation: Media briefings should be streamed live on the Web for the world to see. This will give small media outlets (including diocesan and congregational reporters) the same access to media briefings as well-funded ones, and will open up briefings for anyone else who would like to view them.
Press room management: An offer to serve
We would like to provide a press room that meets the needs of both the secular and religious media. As the Church, it is important to provide every possible resource to the secular media who seek to tell our story. Helping them do this job well is not only smart, it models the truth and forthrightness we seek from our congregations, dioceses and organizations.
The press room should reflect The Episcopal Church’s radical hospitality and best practices of customer service: including providing adequate room to work, internet and cell phone accessibility, and resource people available to provide background and to answer questions. Episcopal Communicators will gladly organize a concierge to constantly staff the Convention press room, ensuring that members of the media have the best access to the tools they need in a professional, cooperative atmosphere.
Experts will be identified from a diversity of backgrounds according to the topic being addressed that day in each house. These experts will be provided with assistance and tips in dealing with the media.
Let’s work together
As the reorganization of the Church Center and its Office of Communication moves forward, Episcopal Communicators looks forward to a new era of cooperation and collaboration. To that end, we offer our services and expertise to you, to make media coverage of General Convention the best it can possibly be, so the Good News of Jesus Christ, reflected in the work of General Convention, is not colored by the adversarial attitudes of the past.
President, Episcopal Communicators