Spin is unChristian: The Church should not protect its reputation, it should build it.

12 May 2023  |  Insights
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There are times when it feels like whenever I check my Twitter feed or my media stream, there’s a story about a Christian leader, church or organisation accused of causing damage to the people they are meant to serve. The past few months have been such a time.

Spiritual abuse. Fraud. Sexual abuse. Bullying.

Devastating, heartbreaking allegations about Christian leaders abusing their power, authority or influence have been made across the UK, Australia and the USA.

Since we started Jersey Road PR 13 years ago, I’ve been approached by numerous churches and charities asking for help to respond to stories like these. What should they say? What about innocent until proven guilty? What if they say the wrong thing and make everything worse?

To some, the thought of Christian leaders turning to PR in a crisis may appear like they’re prioritising reputation over reality.

But you shouldn’t be able to separate the two.

Your reputation as a church or organisation – what people believe about you – is core to the trust you need to fulfil your mission. And it should be an authentic reflection of who you are.

If the people you are there to serve don’t believe your reputation is real, you’ll fail. As many Christian leaders have discovered, when you don’t live up to the values you claim to hold, you can be sure you will be found out. As Harold Burson, one of the most influential PR practitioners of the 20th century, said: “PR cannot overcome things that shouldn’t have been done.”

Attempting to spin your way out of a crisis or sweep things under the carpet is not just poor, outdated PR practice – it’s also profoundly unChristian.

Christian leaders must avoid trying to protect the reputation they think they should have and focus instead on building an organisation or a church that puts God and others at the centre, and where how they communicate is a reflection of this reality.

This means putting victims first. No matter how painful it is for you as a leader to be dealing with a public crisis; no matter what damage it causes your reputation, it is nothing in comparison to the physical, spiritual and mental damage suffered by victims and survivors, particularly in cases of abuse.

How organisations treat people who make allegations will affect both them and others who are wondering how they will be received if they speak out about their own experience of being abused.

Being victim-focused does not mean prejudging the outcome of an ongoing investigation or presuming guilt. The truth matters and it’s vital to follow due process without prejudice. But staying silent is a sure-fire way to lose trust – and to ensure victims feel overlooked and ignored.

Acknowledge the pain of the situation, listen to and keep a clear line of communication open with the people who have reported being hurt, and think carefully about the words you use and the impact they might have on victims.

Leaders should also communicate with transparency, especially in a crisis.

The Church has a long and ignominious history of covering up allegations of abuse. Like it or not, public trust in Christian leaders has been tainted by that history, and it’s up to today’s leaders to change it.

If you want the world to believe that you are good news, you need to demonstrate it by owning up to and apologising for your failings and being publicly accountable for addressing them.

When there’s an investigation, this means being open about who is conducting it – ideally an independent party – providing a timeline if possible, sharing the findings and making clear what action you are going to take in response. In the long term, it means living up to the commitments you have made and communicating how you are doing this.

Of course, being victim focused, transparent and accountable in your communications will only help build your reputation if it is an authentic outworking of your organisation’s culture.

Cultural failings are at the heart of many of the crises being faced by Christian organisations today. It’s common, when allegations hit the headlines or are shared on social media, to find out that concerns have been bubbling away for years.

Too often, they are ignored or not dealt with by the leadership, or have been perpetrated by leaders, enabled by poor organisational governance and sometimes a culture of hero-worship.

One of the most valuable steps you can take as a leader to prevent a crisis is to deliberately and persistently cultivate a safe, healthy organisational culture: where people are listened to and empowered, where accountability is valued and encouraged, and where the wellbeing of both leaders and others is nurtured.

If a crisis breaks within your organisation and the social media floodgates open, the people who have lived in and experienced your culture will share their stories of those experiences with the world.

It’s these stories that will make or break the trust people have in your organisation’s ability to make things better.

For the love of God, Christian leaders must do what they can today to build and keep that trust and establish a reputation of safety, empathy and ultimately love.

By Gareth Russell, Managing Director, Jersey Road PR

Jersey Road PR has produced a free crisis communications course for churches, which you can access here. The online course gives leaders a foundational understanding of good crisis communications and helps them apply it to their own church situation – from guidance on how to prevent a crisis, to how to respond effectively and repair the damage if a crisis hits.

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