Understanding the media:

News values: The values that journalists use to determine newsworthiness are:
• Timeliness
• Human interest

What reporters look for:
fast, accurate information
exclusives—stories or information that others have not covered
emotion—personal or eyewitness accounts
• conflict, controversy, cover-up
concise sound bites or quotes 

If you are contacted by the media:

  • Contact your district superintendent and let him or her know about the situation. If you need assistance in preparing to respond, he or she will connect you with the conference director of communications to help you develop your message.
  • Respond quickly. If the reporter didn’t let you know his or her deadline, ask what it is. You can let the reporter know you are gathering information and will get back to him or her as soon as possible.
  • Agree to be interviewed (see below for tips on preparing your message). Sometimes it might be tempting to ignore a media request. But the story will happen with or without your participation, and commenting gives you an opportunity to control part of the narrative and get accurate information out there. If you don’t participate or you say “no comment,” the story will likely say that you did not return phone calls or refused to comment. This makes it look like you’re hiding something and could seriously harm your church’s reputation.
  • Try to avoid email responses. It might seem easier to respond to questions via email than by phone or in-person, but emails can’t convey tone, so they sometimes come across differently than they were intended. Email also makes it harder for the reporter to ask clarifying follow-up questions, which often help ensure that the reporter understands exactly what you’re trying to get across.
  • Assume everything you say is “on the record.” Anything you tell a reporter, whether by phone, email or in-person, could be used in a story—so even if you’re not in a formal interview setting, be mindful about what you say.

Steps for preparing your message:

  • Gather facts about the situation. What happened? When did it happen? How did it happen? Who was involved? What are the related policies or procedures, and were they followed? What is the impact? How are you responding to the situation and/or preventing a similar situation from happening again?
  • Identify a spokesperson. The spokesperson should be a key leader (pastor, member of church council or SPRC, district superintendent, etc.) who is thoughtful, articulate, and feels comfortable answering questions in a compassionate, non-defensive way. Someone who is terrified at the prospect of speaking with the media isn’t the best person for the job. Pastoral, church, and district staff should politely, but firmly, direct reporters to the designated spokesperson so that one person is offering a clear and consistent message.
  • Identify key messages. Write down three key points (no more than one sentence each) that you want to convey; identifying them and letting them guide interviews will help you stay on point and get across exactly what you want to say. When identifying your key messages, refer to:
    -statement of facts
    -church policy
    -compassion and concern for those involved
    -response and prevention
  • Practice your response. Before doing your interview, rehearse your key points. Have someone ask you questions that a reporter might ask so that you can practice responding. No matter what you are asked, always return to one of the three key messages you identified. Understand that the reporter will likely only use one or two sound bites, not the entirety of your interview, so sticking to your key points and repeating them throughout the interview will ensure that they are what make it into the story. Some phrases you can use to help you get back to your key points when you’re asked questions designed to elicit an alternative response: are “What I can tell you is…” “The most important thing to know is…” or “I want to be clear that…” Remember, you are in control and your responses are what drive the interview—not the questions, as those typically won’t make it into the story.

During interviews with reporters:

tell the truth (but remember that you don’t need to share ALL information; be strategic in what and how much you say)
keep statements short, simple, and conversational
express compassion for those involved
speak in complete sentences; it is okay to pause before answering
be prepared to talk about policies and procedures, especially when you cannot discuss specifics
acknowledge challenges, but focus on solutions
take control when answering questions and return to your main points (and repeat them throughout the interview); don’t wait for the perfect question
say “I don’t know” when you don’t have specific information requested, but offer to find and provide it

say “no comment” (it sounds guilty)
get hostile or defensive
repeat negatives
use jargon or acronyms
give personal opinion
speculate on others’ feelings or opinions
speculate on the future or on areas outside of your expertise
make assumptions about guilt or innocence
speak off the record (assume every conversation with a reporter is on the record)

If you need assistance:

Your district superintendent is the best starting point when you’re contacted by a reporter, but the conference director of communications is also here to assist you in responding to the news media. She can help you prepare your message and feel confident going into interviews. In crisis situations in particular, please contact her:

Christa Meland
Director of Communications
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Phone: 612-230-6132 / Email: christa.meland@minnesotaumc.org