By Jonathan Howe
The past few weeks have been quite eventful for the communications teams at Cracker Barrel and United Airlines. In case you’ve missed it, Cracker Barrel faced a deluge of complaints following the firing of a server named Nanette Reid. Her husband posted about it on the Cracker Barrel corporate Facebook page, and Internet pranksters created the #BradsWife movement.
Then a video surfaced this week of a passenger on a United Airlines flight being physically “re-accommodated.” Mainstream news and social media sites have been filled with stories and hot takes on everything from the passenger’s past (in which many stories had incorrect information) to the standard airline practice of overbooking.
Both companies are still fighting these crises, and from many (or most?) perspectives, they are losing the battle when it comes to public opinion. These companies will likely recover over time. They will likely hire PR firms to win back customers and improve their public reputation. It’s what big companies do.
But what if this had been your church? What if your church was faced with a scandal or legal issue that called for crisis communications? Are you prepared? Some are, but many churches are not. And their responses to crises often fall into three categories:
- They ignore the reality and severity of the problem. Too many times, churches try and fail to “keep things in the family.” They intentionally share little, if any, information, and what is shared is ambiguous or intentionally deceitful. It is not uncommon for the victim to be portrayed as the perpetrator by the church’s messaging. “This is an internal church matter that is being dealt with by our leadership” is often a quote you will hear from churches that respond this way. Still, some even refuse to address the issue altogether. This response is wrong and should never be an option—especially for churches.
- They admit wrongdoing has occurred but take a defensive posture. Unfortunately, this is the most common response I see from churches. The church often acknowledges the offense, but tries to rationalize the action or their response. A typical response you will hear from these churches is “While we acknowledge the incident occurred, certain procedures were not followed which led to this unfortunate circumstance.” The church refuses to take ownership of the issue and tries to pass the blame. Like the previous response, this is one churches shouldn’t consider.
- They admit to the incident, apologize for the harm it has done to their witness, and apply corrective measures. I wish more churches took this route. These churches realize the severity of the issues at hand. They understand that the witness and reputation of the church in the community has been damaged. They realize that even with all their policies and procedures in place, things happened, and they happened on their watch. They apologize sincerely for the damage done. They refuse to ignore the fact that it will take time to recover. They also expect some people will leave church and understand why. In short, they face the issue with grace and humility. These churches are led well, and they often overcome crises in the end without the need for big PR firms or fancy marketing campaigns. The gospel is enough for these churches.
How would your church respond in a time of crisis? Have you seen an example of a church that faced a crisis with humility and grace?