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. Brian,

    I apologize if it seems that I was attacking your opinion… I should have probably elaborated on the points that I agreed with.  I do agree with what you are saying.  I guess I was really more adding to what you were saying that it is never appropriate to lie, or to give false hope.  We have real hope, and don't need false hope.  We need truth from leadership.

    Scriptual interpretation part, I was really just laying the groundwork, that I am not an enemy of spiritual gifts, and a hater of this type of ministry, nor a person that is on a witch hunt.

    Anonymity….  Nice thing afforded to us by the moderator.  My name would mean nothing.  I am not famous, am not connected to anything important in the media world, etc.  Truthfully, my name is long, impossible for most people to spell or pronounce, and my first name would inaccurately imply that I am a female.  Can't help the names we are given, but we *can* post a fictitious name to this board…. ;o)

    Sorry again if I offended, didn't intend to come across that way.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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)


  6. The people who set up the system are the people that will thrive in it and everyone else will have to find a way to deal with living within that system until another group are strong enough to overcome it and replace it with a new one till then it will be tough for many. This is primarily a world system governed by evil rooted in many things that many of us will never understand for a number of reasons but two come to mind: 1. It is convenient enough to live (or survive) 2. It is very hard work to develop and establish a new and better way and that sometimes means the loss of life or material possessions. I don't even know why we even thinking that for one second the world system is set to favour the Body of Christ in the first place. Until we finally grasp this Kingdom issue we are just beating around the bush and we will spend more time trying to fix ourselves to accomodate a broken, godless, faulty and ever changing world system. Even they are having problems running it now – debt/WGA strike…? The world's media will never favour the Body of Christ. Look at even what has happened to Mother Theresa of all the people you would think would get some credit from the world and hey they do an expose on her personal thoughts (like people have never struggled in their walk with the Lord or even in life). At this time, yes I agree that we need to really face the current state that we are in the Body of Christ with regards to our lifestyles (which again has come into question because we have lost track of what we are here for) and return to the way of the Lord in humility and reverence. Our value for human life has greatly diminished but we need to build each other up in love because the world will not do it for us and we get no extra favours from the world when we tear each other down. Even when Jesus rebuked certain parts of the Church in Revelation He made sure that there were assurances of restoration and recommendation. When we correct each other let there also be an assurance of restoration and recommendation. By this will all men know that we are His disciples – by the love (agape – unconditional, regardless of performance, approach, approval)we have one for another.

  7. Thanks for your response. I wasn't offended but wanted to clarify the point I was trying to make to keep it on the issue of PR response to a specific audience. It seems lately, on the responses to Phil's site, everyone is bickering and preaching over mostly integrity issues. The problem with this is you can't know someone's heart – whether fallen or under attack for stupid things. But we can make critical observations about their response or lack of response. I agree the response shouldn't promise what you – personally – can't deliver or don't know all the facts about. Oral Roberts was speaking from his heart as a father and chancellor to the students and faculty of the university that bears his name. It's unfortunate, with today's technology, you can't simply speak to a group of supporters (not intended for the general public) without it getting mixed in with other information for the general public. Even emails are being put up on web sites. This is what we sacrifice for convenience – loss of privacy. As we've discussed before on this site: we have to change our strategy or we'll continue to have this problem. Another case of PR response: Fires in California – while the fires are still burning they are already blaming different organizations for not having the right or fast enough response. What a media hostile age we live in!

  8. Personally, I don't think that the secular media has really been that hostile to the ORU deal.  I think the biggest voice that I have witnessed has been the non-media – with a sudden voice given to them by blogs, and message boards such as this one.  I think these are powerful tools that can give insight to the opinions of the public.  In the ORU case, you have views from all over the universe of opinion (if you haven't already – take a look at the Tulsa World articles and follow-ups).  There are not too many individuals posting compared to the multiple posts by a few.  But

    I guess the media isn't really the subject of this blog entry though, it is more about PR responding to the right audience.

    Oral Roberts began utilizing the media of television with what I believe was an intention to spread the gospel.  Since this became a fairly expensive channel to utilize, he raised funds using the same media.  While many things that have been done by these ministries of Oral Roberts and now Richard Roberts that have been very good, and many with good intent, many of these EXACT things, have brought an appearently candid, VERY personal perspective of Oral and Richard as people.  They have broadcast their personal lives INTO the living rooms of the public.  How much more personal can you get than to be sharing things that you say are personal words of God for you?  Since they have utilized the media to bring forth an image of their personal lives, they have opened themselves up to the public audience that is now witnessing a very different perspective. 

    With this idea, the boundaries of sharing your heart to your "group of followers" is very blurred.  I would find it very hard to argue that the media is crossing a line when a famous figure (especially since he is famous of his own doing) makes an address to thousands of people, and they report on it.

    It may be a PR nightmare, but honesty and humility is the only correct answer.  Not an easy one, but the best – nonetheless.

    When it comes to "God said", "the Holy Spirit told me", and those types of comments….  I find them grieving.  This again, is a personal belief, but if we are conducting our lives in God, then our decisions will be affected by our convictions.  I think that not only are these comments setting you up for a PR disaster, but I think that when God does speak to us, His encouraging words are for us, and should not be used by us as a "pass" to tell others not to question us.  Even when God used leaders in the Old Testament, often they did not have to qualify their leadership decisions by saying "God told me that I have to do this… "  etc.  You just do it.  When you put yourself in a public spotlight, it is even more important that you consider your audience, as well as the potential audience.

    I guess where I am going with all of that, is that good strategy for your PR approaches should be developed long before you find yourself in a disaster recovery effort.  Your risks should be analyzed routinely to ensure that your strategy is still feasible, and any public spotlight you draw needs to be realized as an opening for scrutiny.

    Let's say that an unwise man employs an internal PR strategy of squelching opposition by firing employees that bring up questions about how or why the organization is doing something…  Or fines or dismisses students when they voice a differing opinion…  This will result in a staff, and student body that has learned that if you question something, just sweep it under the rug because it isn't worth the price.  Not a healthy environment, but none-the-less it does result in a smooth operation.

    Just some thoughts on why things might be very hard to contain, not because of disaster recovery PR strategies, but because of PR strategies that were employed long before there was obvious trouble.

  9. Now you're talking!  These are some good points.  Oral is nearly 90 and will not change his approach.  He looks at a situation, weighs it carefully (prayerfully) and speaks his mind (PR take a number).  Though he has been criticized it hasn't stopped him from doing what he believes the Holy Spirit has told him to do.  There has been mistakes (Oral is human) but I've seen him repent (sometimes publically), get back up and move on to the next mountain.  Richard is different.  He appreciates and honors his heritage along with personally hearing God's voice but he also considers and is open to contemporary approaches.  He's not against finding and fixing mistakes or problems.  But, like any ministry I've worked for, if you're going to point it out, you should also come loaded with solutions.  In general, I've found (especially lateley) that PR will always be a gamble: we don't know how people will ultimately respond (and sometimes we shouldn't care).  We can have experience and have great results at predicting the reaction but any variable (allegation) can come up and pop our balloon.  It's the survivors that get back up, keep their eyes on the goal and don't give up.

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