The Role of the Publicity Officer
A Publicity Officer's Job
A publicity officer's job is to let others see Unitarians as we see ourselves, to project a positive image, dispel any false beliefs people may have and to encourage those who share our beliefs to join and worship with us.
It should be seen that
Our disbeliefs need not be advertised but what we believe and do should be emphasised. Generally theological comment will be made by the minister but social concerns are equally the province of the publicity officer.
Publicity is about mundane matters like autumn fayres, garden parties, bazaars, harvest festivals, visits of presidents and district ministers. It is also about the church looking attractive, the garden being tidy and strangers finding their way to us and being made welcome when they get there.
When we speak of publicity most people will think of newspapers, radio, and television, but our buildings are often our most obvious and permanent public presence. Remember also the publicity value of the church newsletter, widely distributed, and the Unitarian entry in the telephone directory. Advice and grants for publicity work can be obtained from the GA Information Department, Essex Hall, 1-6 Essex St, LONDON, WC2R 3HY; Email: email@example.com .
Probably the best advertising medium most congregations have is their building. Many are prominent and many have architectural merit. For the congregation the building may be just the shell in which they meet for worship; for them the important thing is the congregation and perhaps it is enough that the building is weather-tight, warm and about the right size.
But people passing by do not know what happens inside. The minister could be silver tongued, the chapel warm and comfortable, the people friendly and the coffee out of this world, but unless they go in, they will never know.
If the building is grimy, the windows dirty, the garden unkempt and the entrance looks little-used, they will reasonably assume that the congregation is moribund. The outside of a place of worship is as much an indication of what is inside as is a shop window or the label on a pot of jam. We should cherish the building and keep it smart.
A clean building and a tidy garden can welcome people in and a friendly congregation can make them feel at home if they venture in. They might stay and join if our worship is right for them but unless they are moved to come in, they will never know.
Every notice board tells two tales, one is written on the notices, the other is the general appearance. Boards should be well-painted, tidy and up to date. Posters should be clear, unambiguous and brief so "S/he who runs may read". Scruffy notices indicate carelessness as do those left up after the event has passed.
Posters need not be confined to the church notice board. Small notices, A4 or even postcard size, can be displayed from shop and house windows. Fly posting can create a hostile reception, so don't do it.
An important medium of publicity for congregations should be the local press. The Times, Guardian and Independent may have more prestige but the local paper will be read by many more people living within walking distance of the church.
The aim is to get more people to come to our services. The target is religious liberals. People like US need to know that there are people like THEM meeting for worship and that they would be welcome.
Editors are on the lookout for news - news being anything fit to print which the editor believes will interest the readers.
The editor's job is to fill the paper and please readers so they will keep on buying it. It is not to give free publicity to causes, however worthy.
Papers are made up of advertisements, major news stories, features, minor news items, free listings and letters. Letters to the editor and minor news items are among the easiest targets for publicity officers, and the free listings section should be used as much as possible.
- Letters to the press
Letters give inexpensive publicity and are good for showing the congregation's concerns for others and projecting an image of a liberal, caring community.
It is easy for anyone to write to the press; it is only a little harder to write letters which will be published.
Editors like controversial letters which are to the point and without woolliness of thought or surplus words.
They like letters received in good time for publication.
They like letters which are typed, with double spacing and wide margins with text on one side of the paper only.
They like to know the name and position of the writer, so type in your name and "Publicity Officer", "Press Officer", "Minister" or whatever.
They like a day-time phone number so they can check details and authenticity.
Letters on church writing paper should only be written by authorised officers: minister, chair, secretary, treasurer, lettings officer, publicity officer and any other person authorised by the committee. Letters should always reflect the views of at least the majority of the congregation.
Publicity officers need to be quite certain about the congregation's views on controversial matters like unilateral disarmament, abortion, gay rights, Sunday shop opening, blood sports, animal liberation etc. and they must be ready to put forward their views when suitable opportunities arise. Other members should be encouraged to write, identifying their link with the church, in cases where they support the majority congregational view.
Ministers can give their personal opinions on manse writing paper, not on church paper. Similarly the publicity officer's own views can be expressed on paper with the home address on it, (use church paper only when speaking for the congregation).
Letters can be written on all sorts of subjects but, as far as possible they should all help to build the congregation's liberal, caring image - no letters saying that we don't want the drug support clinic next to the church; that the noise from the proposed youth centre would interfere with worship or that a shelter for the homeless would lower the tone of the neighbourhood!
Letters can comment on articles or correspondence in the previous issue. They can agree, disagree or amplify:
"Unitarians are answering the Mayor's call for places where retired people can meet, with a drop-in for coffee club every Thursday morning for the over-sixties."
Letters can correct errors of reporting. This should be wrapped up in pleasant words, as the reporter would not mean to mislead:
"From your excellent report of our All Faiths Service, some readers might think that Unitarians do not seek to follow the teachings of Jesus, in fact."
Letters can be about burning issues, matters which religious liberals will understand, issues of conscience, sexual and racial discrimination or freedom of belief. Letters should be reasonable in tone.
We can "bandwagon", get in on someone else's good idea:
"Age Concern are worried about older people during the cold weather and we at the Unitarian Chapel are organising
a 'Care for your Neighbour Scheme'. Ring me on 837 7324 for information."
Letters to the Press should be interesting and never too long. Editors like short letters which will neatly fill up a column.
DON'T start with "My attention has been drawn to." - it only means you don't read the paper.
DON'T repeat opinions you are opposing, get straight in with your view:
"Unitarians have had women in their ministry since the turn of the century and have found them equal."
DON'T try and answer every point of a letter, pick out one or two salient points and answer them firmly and concisely.
DON'T be unkind to people whose views you oppose, or treat them as fools. As well as the moral reasons, it tends to get readers on their side, especially if your letter has hints of smugness or superiority.
DON'T use the passive voice:
"Lightening struck the Unitarian spire in last night's." NOT "the Unitarian spire was struck by lightening."
DON'T use churchy language or bits of Latin or French. Use good unstuffy English.
DON'T be sarcastic, and irony sounds like sarcasm. Humour is good so long as the readers can see the joke too.
DON'T dash off letters. Draft, correct, type, check; then get someone to check that there are no ambiguities.
DON'T delay, write today!
- Newspaper Stories
A newspaper needs news, and news is what interests the readers. If we look at our local papers we can see what the editor regards as news and that news value is not constant but varies according to the law of supply and demand. Although few people will see events at a small chapel as gripping news, they will find them interesting if they are reported well. Do not be afraid of a light touch; try not to be pompous.
Visits by the district minister or president of the GA are news if they are made interesting. So are harvest festivals, carol concerts, candle-light services, Amnesty meetings, pensioners groups, children's services.
Weddings are news and it is worth asking the photographer for a black and white photograph for the paper, and sending it with a caption, including the name of the church. (Many photographers send the photo - but you should give them the details, name of minister and of church).
The Press can get news in several ways. They can send a reporter. In this event, try to speak to the reporter and try to correct any misunderstanding - it is surprising how many reporters see all clergy as priests or vicars.
Always tell the paper about each event in good time and send in a report afterwards unless a reporter came along. Be reasonably brief.
Generally it is best to omit postnominals. "William Brown, Minister of the Unitarian Church" sounds nicer than "The Revd William Brown BSc Dip.Ed." ("The Revd Dr Blank, DD MA" would keep most young people well away from his place).
From mid-July to mid-September is know as the Silly Season; there is generally a dearth of news. People who make the news are on holiday, the council is in recess and editors hunt for something to say. This is a good time to get our stories in the papers.
- Media Releases
These are commonly called Press Releases but Media Release is a better word as they can be sent to radio and television stations as well as the local newspapers. The Media Release is generally the best way of communicating a news story to the media. There are certain rules about how best to structure a Media Release which, if followed, will give your story a better chance of featuring in print.
Type on one side of A4 sheets, double-spaced, and leaving wide margins. This makes it easier for the journalist to make his own amendments in preparation for publication.
Use a straightforward, simple headline. (This is to attract the editor's attention and it will probably be re-written for publication).
All paragraphs should be brief.
The first paragraph should give the essential points of the story covering WHO?, WHAT?, WHERE? and WHEN? These crucial details should be covered concisely in case the editor is short for space and has to reduce the story for print to three or four sentences. The content of other paragraphs should be in descending order of importance.
At the bottom type "ENDS", date it and add "For further information please ring." as the journalist may wish to confirm details or even ask for some more. Try to give a daytime and evening phone number.
A good, relevant photograph is often useful. Remember to include a caption. This can be typed on an address label and stuck on the reverse of the photo.
If possible take the release to the newspaper office and hand it to a reporter who can read it and ask questions there and then. If you have to post it, ring, ostensibly to see that it has arrived, but to bring it to the top of the pile and to be available for further information.
Try to cultivate a particular journalist and establish a bond of trust between you - s/he knowing that your news is reliable and honest, your releases are worth reading and you are someone to turn to for comment on religious happenings.
Remember time is of the essence; editors want news not history - check deadlines and get your material in in good time.
Publicity officers should send local radio details of all events - fayres, concerts, meetings and special services like inductions, visits of the president, anniversaries, animal services and so on. Not all will be mentioned but it helps keep the radio station aware that there is a congregation with something to say.
If there is to be an interview, it will probably be for an insert to be edited into news, "what's on" or magazine programmes. For the person interviewed it is important, novel and a bit frightening, but to them it is just two minutes in a half-hour programme.
Producers invite people to speak because they are seen as experts, knowing more than the interviewer. S/he will ask questions which the listeners would ask - and many listeners left school at 15!
Chance favours the prepared mind, and answers to possible questions should be rehearsed and a note made of a few facts and figures on a piece of card. The person being interviewed should decide what should be brought up and, if it is not, be prepared to lead the interview. This can be done by weaving a prepared piece into the answer or saying "That reminds me."even if it doesn't.
Microphones can be ignored, they have engineers to look after them, but care should be taken not to cough into them, rustle papers or drum on the table. Speech should be conversational in tone and language as it is to be heard in homes and not from a pulpit.
Many big advertisers, whose budgets are mainly for television and press, spend substantial sums having leaflets and cards put through letterboxes. Clearly they find it pays. We can do this with very little outlay.
Messages should be short enough to be read between the doormat and the dustbin and always have a telephone number for further information.
Commercial advertisers have to pay people to distribute their leaflets, but we can do it ourselves. Ideally by adults living in the roads or areas being leafleted; people who can answer questions if asked and will be selective in the choice of houses.
Many of us look out through the window when something is pushed through the door, and the church will be judged by the appearance and behaviour of the person delivering as well as what is delivered. Carefully close gates on the way out!
Leaflets can be for special events, like All Faiths services, or for general information about our worship and our beliefs. Special events give people an incentive to come on that particular day and, if they like us, they may come again. However those leaflets must be printed specially for the one occasion and be delivered at the right time, a few days before the event. This could be a problem as wet weather deters deliverers. It is a good idea to make Information Department leaflets congregation-specific by adding church contact details using printed address labels, which are available very cheaply from local print firms.
Have a publicity table in the church or entrance hall, well stocked with leaflets from the Unitarian Information Department. If possible print a welcome card or leaflet specific to your congregation. Visitors are more likely to take literature if it is put in an envelope marked "Visitors pack - please take one".
(Adapted by Matthew Smith from The Manual of Congregational Practice)