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Tips for clergy who must deal with media

November 21, 2009|By TERRY MATTINGLY / Scripps Howard News Service

The Sunday service had just ended and the Rev. Larry Kroon couldn't believe what he was seeing.

A journalist was chasing Wasilla Bible Church members in the aisles, trying to convince somebody, anybody, to dish about his flock's most famous church lady. The craziness had started as soon as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the GOP's nominee for vice president.

Suddenly, there were satellite dishes out front and worshippers were trapped inside, trying to escape to the safety of their cars in the parking lot.

Kroon tried to control the chaos, telling journalists they were free to participate in worship services, but not to film or interrupt them.

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The pastor also asked them not to "fish for interviews" as members arrived or departed. He thought these rules were enough. He was wrong.

"We can look back and say, 'Whoa. We really should have done this or that differently,' " said Kroon. "I was naive enough to think this wasn't going to affect us - but it did. We ended up scrambling to get from day to day. We had that deer in the headlights look for quite a while."

Wasilla Bible Church encountered professionals from the New York Times, CNN, Time, Fox, the major television networks and just about everyone else - from America and around the world. Flocks of alleged journalists arrived from every corner of the World Wide Web, as well.

After hurricane Palin, Kroon met with management consultant James Stamoolis and prepared some tips for clergy who struggle with media attention wanted or unwanted. Some of those tips are relevant again in Wasilla, since Palin's faith plays a big role in her new "Going Rogue" memoir. Here's a sample, drawn from a talk with Kroon.

o Never accept an interview without confirming a reporter's identity and his or her current employer. Just because someone has written for the Associated Press doesn't mean that he isn't currently a blogger for PalinIsAWitch.org or something like that.

o Help reporters understand that private communications between clergy and the faithful are, in fact, privileged and guarded by the same kinds of laws that shield reporters and their sources.

o Keep contact information for community leaders - such as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for church elders - in a firewall-protected section of your congregation's Web site. Post contact information for staffers who are prepared to handle media requests in a timely manner.

o Ask if reporters or producers have experience covering religion news. Some journalists sincerely want factual information that will help them cover a story fairly and accurately, while others "are in a hurry and they simply want what they want. You may think you're helping them understand who you are and what you believe, but they just want a good quote and then they're moving on," said Kroon.

o It may help to post information about your denomination or tradition, including frequently asked questions about worship, media relations, how the congregation is governed and the meaning of unique terms (such as "born again" or "charismatic") that newcomers will encounter.

o Understand that a two-hour interview may be reduced to 20 seconds and that the journalist decides what goes in that sound bite. So avoid lectures and focus on the key points that you need to make to explain your congregation's point of view. It's also important to remember that silence is the reporter's problem, not your problem.

o In the Internet age, there is no reason that a pastor cannot - as a condition for talking to a reporter - insist on the right to record and transcribe an interview. That way, the professionals on both sides of the transaction know that they are on the record and the results, if needed to clarify a point, can be posted online or e-mailed to a publisher.

Kroon stressed that he was impressed by many of the journalists, especially with their commitment to accuracy and fairness. They wanted to get the story right. But others arrived in Wasilla with their minds clamped shut. They came to get the story that they already knew they wanted to write.

"Pastors need to understand that there are really good reporters and there are some really bad ones, too," he said. "You also have to understand that even the really good ones are going to push you to your boundary lines. That's what they do."

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