Strategy & Marketing

Responding to the Right Audience During a PR Crisis

Religious and non-profit organizations go through periods of crisis.  No matter how good your intentions and motives, eventually, stuff happens.  Employees turn out to have problems, things fly out of control, and whether they might be true or false, allegations can come from a variety of sources and directions.  There are many challenges to confront during a public relations crisis, and many of those issues we discuss in this blog from time to time.

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood is understanding your audience.  Too many religious and non-profit organizations don’t respond the right way to the right audiences, and when that happens, it undermines the trust of your supporters.

For instance, if you’re a religious organization facing allegations of financial improprieties, then a “spiritual” answer isn’t appropriate.  Trying to assure supporters that God will deliver you, or that Satan won’t destroy the ministry isn’t what donors are  looking for.  They’re looking for professional assurances that financial safeguards are in place, and integrity is your priority.  If it’s a financial crisis, don’t respond like an pastor or evangelist.  Respond like a professional.

Whatever the problem, respond to that issue from the perspective of that issue.  


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  1. If this is your impression of the latest news stories about the Oral Roberts University lawsuit, then I find your commentary too simplistic.     With the lawsuit we’re not just dealing with one issue or communicating to one audience. The issues deal with a mix of practices at both the school and the ministry.  As Oral Roberts says: “We’re a ministry that has a university.”  We’re dealing with a school with regents, faculty, alumni, students and their concerned parents.  We’re also dealing with a ministry with the mockers (the press), the searching, the faithful partners, and a stunned staff.     Though we have the luxury of disagreeing with their choices, the Roberts and the ORU Board of Regents have attempted to speak with a different approach and “voice” to each audience: the Public Audience on Larry King Live and with straight forward (minimal “spiritual”) press releases and full page ads; the Ministry Audience on their ministry programs; the University Audience during chapels, hall meetings and with emails and letters.     The unfortunate thing is that the press likes to mix all the statements up.  Case in point: on Monday, Oral Roberts made his triumphant return to an ORU chapel.  This was a private (but not secret), unaired chapel for the students, faculty and staff.  Oral was speaking to that audience.  But the press was in the audience and had the “Oral Roberts: We Won’t Let The Devil Take Away ORU” story posted the next hour.     You worked with him Phil – do you really think you can separate Oral from his spiritual perspective and insights.  He is nearly 90 and is stronger than I’ve seen him in years, unashamedly proclaiming “God is a good God!” and “The devil is a bad devil!”  To ask him not to be “spiritual” would be like separating his spirit from his body.     Richard and Lindsay Roberts are hurt but have done what the Roberts Family (beginning with Oral and Evelyn) have always done: in the midst of personal tragedies and attacks, they turn on the cameras and minister to the needs of their mixed-up audience with healing prayers and encouragement.  Right now, nearly half of every weekday Richard and Lindsay are ministering the healing Gospel. “Something Good Tonight – The Hour of Healing” has been live every night at 8pm CT from the Prayer Tower and the response has been amazing.  The phones are tied up with hundreds of people calling every night, wanting this couple, who stand accused, to pray for their needs.  Healings and miracles are happening!  Also, for the first time since it started over 10 years ago, Lindsay’s program “Make Your Day Count” is live at 2pm CT from the Prayer Tower and the phone lines are tied up (at 2 in the afternoon!).       From the response it looks like they know their audience – everyone has a need and they have the audacity to believe God’s still in the healing business.  I’d say those who complain and feel their trust was undermined would not want to be labeled “supporters” and yet some still watch anyway.   

  2. Actually Phil, I agree with what you are saying. 

    Brian, I also agree with some points that you are making with regards to "audience".  However, there are a couple of things that I would rebut with your statements.  First, I don't care who your audience is, you don't lie to them, make promises you have no control over, or cover up the issues with irrelevant non-negotiable statements.

    The second point I would rebut is a bit harder to to argue, but I think you can see where I am coming from.  I believe in healing.  I believe that the prayer of a righteous man avails much.  I believe that you can lay hands on the sick and they will be healed.  I don't believe that this gift is only for a few chosen, but I do believe that the differing gifts of the spirit sometimes are much more prevalent with different ministers.  All this just to lay a little groundwork.  Many times when Christ healed, he told the receiver of the healing that THEIR faith made them whole.  I believe it is the same today in many if not most cases of healing.  In other words, why should you believe that just because someone is healed it is credited to someone else's faith?  I am just putting this out there, because so many times we don't look at all of the "fruits".  Christ even said that there will be healers in hell.  There will be preachers that even cast out demons in hell.  I am not judging RR here, I am just saying that something that someone may have done in the past, or for certain signs that you see even now may be the results of the receiver's faith and is not necessarily an indication of how that person is living their life on a day to day basis. 

    Back to the first point.  There is validitiy in many of the allegations made.  I have not seen all of these directly, but I have seen SOME of them directly.  And that was years ago.  One thing that was prevelant was the fear of losing a job, or being expelled, not so much for doing wrong, as it was for just simply questioning authority in a healthy way.  Since I have seen some of this, and there is hard evidence for some of the allegations, hearing words from Oral that none of the allegations are true means that I am greived in the false statement.  Him saying that to the students, would be like you telling me that you have never – since infancy lied.  The statement itself is a lie.

  3. I was speaking of trying to respond to a "complex" audience with answers for each group, the problems of the overlap or clumping of information, and the positive results I've seen in the TV ministry. You are talking about moral integrity and scriptural interpretation, which though important, is another part of the issue all-together. It's like the difference between using your real name vs. writing anonymously.

  4. My general observations of several multi-million dollar ministries is that their financial reporting is less transparent than most publically listed companies. I agree with Phil that a "spiritual" answer to simple legal or financial question only serves to build distrust.

    Having said that, there are publically listed companies whose accounts, in my opinion, seem deliberately complex (e.g Newscorp).

    Should we assume that the reporting and PR standards of non-profits exceed commercial enterprises? I think so.

    Anthony Peterson (MBA)


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