Out of Sight, Out of Credibility


In the formative years of radio and television religious denominations enjoyed a privileged relationship with these media. The broadcast industry operated under federal regulations that required networks and local stations to function in the public interest. Networks provided both airtime and funding to produce religious programs.

President Harry Truman broadcast a live pitch for One Great Hour of Sharing on nationwide radio in the late 1940’s to support refugee relief in Europe at the close of World War II. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was a primetime performer on television. Religious magazine shows and documentaries were among network staples.

In the heyday of Mainline religious programming, the 1950s, the visibility of the denominations was pervasive.

As the media environment changed, however, the relationship between broadcast media and denominations declined. Religious news was relegated to the Saturday church page in newspapers and it rarely made broadcast news unless it was controversial or scandalous. But the most accurate description might be “benign neglect.” It appears that for many journalists religious news was not considered worth covering.

In the ’60’s the Mainline churches had already begun to pull back from radio and television programming for many reasons. But local ecumenical efforts sustained visibility in many cities and they carried on the tradition of community service until they lost airtime with deregulation.

In 1984 the Federal Communications Commission began deregulation that has continued to the present. In that year it increased the number of radio stations a single owner could hold from seven to twelve and eliminated programming guidelines, ascertainment requirements, rules governing commercials and program logs. In 1985 the FCC concluded that the “fairness doctrine” no longer served the public interest and it stopped enforcing it in 1987. This spelled the end of broadcasting in the public interest.

Today we live in a multimedia world, the common denominator being that in the United States broadcasting operates on a capitalist model. The messages of non-profit and religious organizations must compete with a multitude of other messages and they must find an effective way to get that message before audiences. The playing field has changed dramatically.

Something else changed, and for a while at least, it escaped the understanding of some religious leaders. The privileged status of religious organizations changed. Where they once were treated with benign neglect, in the new media environment they are fair game for expose’ as any other organization. The sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Church highlighted this in a way that cannot be ignored.


One gets the sense that early-on some of the bishops believed they could stonewall journalists investigating sexual abuse and control the story with silence. But they couldn’t. The capacity of individuals to tell their own stories, and the multitude of media outlets looking for stories makes it virtually impossible to control all external communications channels completely. By the time church leaders discovered this, the story was out of control and they were in a terribly difficult position. They were reacting to a cascade of bad news daily.

I am concerning myself with media coverage in these comments. How the bishops handled the allegations of abuse is not within my scope. The apparent lack of a communications strategy became a case study in why communications is, or should be, a priority for organizations today. If an organization is not prepared to tell its own story, someone else will, and they will tell it from their perspective. This may be positive or negative. In either case, control is given over to others and this is not a desirable place to be in a media-saturated environment.

This is a hard lesson for some to learn. Today it’s more difficult than ever to control public perception of an organization because there are so many ways for detractors to influence how an organization is viewed. Therefore, the most effective stance is a proactive communications strategy in which the organization settles on the message it wants to deliver and the audience it needs to reach and develops a plan to communicate with them.

We believe
our first
responsibility
is to the doctors,
nurses and
patients,
to mothers
and fathers
and all others
who use our
products and
services
…to our
employees
…to the
communities
in which
we live and
work
and to
the world
community
as well
…to our
stockholders.
–Credo
Johnson & Johnson

The message, of course, must be truthful and it must set a context that encourages understanding. Communication must be consistent with the behavior of the organization. Saying one thing and doing another is the quickest way to destroy credibility.

The classic example of positive crisis management is the Tylenol scare in 1982 when seven people died in Chicago from cyanide poisoning linked to taking Tylenol. Executives at Johnson & Johnson were quick to tell consumers to not take Tylenol, removing the product from store shelves and focusing on how the product had been contaminated. It was a serious crisis that could have destroyed both the product and the company.

But J & J managed the crisis with a communication strategy that demonstrated the company valued public safety over its own survival. After the crisis passed, executives implemented a strategy for returning the product to the shelves. This included triple seal packaging, substantial customer discounts to draw people back and an all-out educational effort with customers and medical professionals. It worked. In six weeks, J&J had put the crisis to rest and re-established Tylenol’s position in the marketplace.

For their efforts they received plaudits from the media for transparency and honesty. When asked how they pulled this off, President David Clare said it was because of the company credo, written by Robert Wood Johnson when he started the business. The credo states the company’s responsibilities to “consumers and medical professionals using its products, employees, the communities where its people work and live, and its stockholders .”

It was about two things–integrity and message.

I now shift my attention from the Roman Catholic Church and J&J to the Mainline denominations which have been notably absent from the national dialogue in recent years. I believe the Mainline churches have a message that would resonate if it were put into accessible language and delivered effectively. It is a message of concern for the wholeness of God’s creation. It’s about particular concern for those who are poor. It’s a commitment to search for peace instead of conflict, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retribution, and inclusiveness rather than enmity.

I also believe that in the overheated rhetoric that marks the national dialogue today, discussing this message could be a healing catalyst. The challenge the Mainline denominations face is finding the way to stimulate dialogue, formulate messages so they do not become entangled in political partisanship and empowering people to claim and embody values so they shape our lives. This involves taking a more proactive stance toward all media, old-line, such as broadcast and cable, and new media as well. I believe it will mean re-stating traditional values.

No group has a monopoly on traditional values. In the history of the church it is a tradition to stand for justice, and to advocate for the poor, dispossessed, and victimized. It is traditional to engage in reflective prayer, worship and to participate in those activities that will make the world better. This tradition is about living the life of faith with integrity and a consistent moral vision. It’s been so throughout history.

Finally, credibility comes down to consistency between words and actions. In our skeptical age, no matter what the medium, it’s what we say and what we do that is the measure of our credibility.

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