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Terry O’Reilly has long been a major player in Canadian marketing and advertising.

Terry O'Reilly

In the last few years he has created CBC radio programs, the first called The Age of Persuasion about the ad industry, and just recently Under the Influence about marketing.  His programs are insightful, witty and fascinating.  You can find some of the podcasts through the links and more on iTunes.  Sorry to start a church blog this way, but this is one of my favorite all-time radio series…it makes walking my dog in any weather a joy.

So why mention him?  I was walking my dog in the cold winter rain the other night and listening to his episode on Marketing in a Crisis.  Now just to point out the link in the title leads you to the show’s website where you can read the script and watch supporting video clips…or you can listen to the show on this streaming audio link …or if you want to walk your dog while listening to the podcast, you can get it free on iTunes.  You know, the guy knows how to market his show!

Ok, so getting back to why read or listen to this episode.  About 8:30 minutes into the show he describes the marketing disaster that accompanied the real life disaster of the Carnival Cruise ship sinking off the Tuscan coast.  O’Reilly argues that companies need a crisis marketing plan.  After parsing the Carnival mess, he goes on to recount the story of Tylenol outlining how they literally wrote the book on successfully marketing in a crisis many years ago.

The reality is that churches run into crises as well.  Sometimes members or ministers perpetrate criminal acts.  Sometimes in our liberalism we take on causes that are controversial – maybe not in our eyes, but sometimes in the eyes of folks who don’t like our theology much…and they call us names or worse.  It’s likely we won’t know what it will be till it happens.  I guess that’s why they call it a crisis.

In Marketing in a Crisis, O’Reilly outlines a couple of simple ideas that can form the cornerstone of any response strategy:

First, the company and its PR firm has to implement its crisis strategy right away. Assuming, of course, they have one. If they do, it usually means gathering all the available information, assessing the situation, and drafting initial communication for the press.

Next, a company has to display visible leadership. One of the first things on the crisis checklist is to suspend all advertising. But in the case of Carnival, reports stated that the company didn’t pull its advertising until one week after the event.

Another vitally important factor is that the company can’t just be working its heart out to deal with a catastrophe, but it has to be seen working its heart out.

In a crisis, communication is everything.

In the days following the disaster, it also became clear that Carnival had no plan for dealing with social media.

Its main Facebook page continued to offer the usual updates on trips and deals. CEO Arison, an avid Tweeter, went virtually silent. Six full days after the accident, a post appeared on the Carnival Facebook page saying that out of respect, they were going to, quote: “Take a bit of a break from posting on our social channels.”

But after virtually no online activity for nearly a week, people started to post negative comments on ship safety, and shock over Carnival’s 30% discount offer to the Costa passengers.

By contrast the makers of Tylenol handled the crisis of someone poisoning several bottles of their medication extremely well as the show details.  But the most important factor is why they did what they did:

The way Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis was revealing of the company’s integrity – which included giving the grieving families counseling and financial compensation, even though the company was not at fault.

Should a crisis befall us, as church folks we first have to look to our Principles and take a little time to think through not the most expedient thing to do, but the right thing to do.  In the long run using the crisis to call us back to our best selves will be what gets us through.

As we think about implementing social media strategies in general, O’Reilly reminds us that we have to also set up some plans for what to do when things go wrong, either in church or in the world.  Back on the morning of 9-11 when the towers fell, we had a staff meeting that quickly became a sharing circle.  From that came the idea that we hold hold a supportive vigil service that night and the word went out mostly by phone and some by e-mail. It worked.  It wasn’t a church crisis, per se, but it was a crisis for church folk.  Caring for people is what we do.

I have drafted a document that might be a place to start in thinking out a congregational plan,  Check it out:  Crisis Management Plan: Media

Also here are some helpful links:

“Ready for a Crisis?”


Yes, sorry, this is another thing for your To Do list, but spending some time setting down an even rudimentary policy for how your congregation, and who in your congregation,  can step up in a crisis can save grief and actually help the image of your congregation.