Dear Joel…

I’m sure that you’ve been keeping up with the articles, tweets, Facebook threads, memes, and videos that are all dragging your name through the mud. The magnitude of Hurricane Harvey kind of caught people by surprise and it will go down in history as one of the most unprecedented storms ever because of the havoc it’s wrecking across Texas. People are dying, stuck in their homes, watching water destroy everything and the worse part is….it’s still raining! I just wanted to catch you up since you aren’t in town. The funny part is that as fate would have it, Houston is where Lakewood Church (your church) is, but the doors were locked. Now, I get it…it takes a lot of personnel, resources, and strategic planning to be able to serve as a shelter in the midst of a storm, so there are a million and one reasons why the doors of one of the largest churches in America was locked, but there’s also a way you could have avoided this entire PR nightmare.

Just so I’m clear, I’m not writing you to cast blame, pass judgment, or to criticize. I just want to see you win because not only do you represent your personal brand, but the brand of the Church- and quite frankly as a church communicator, I have a hard enough time getting people to come to church on Sundays, as is, and I really don’t need this disaster to be added to their laundry list of why they don’t trust pastors and don’t go to church. So, here are some ways you could’ve avoided all of this. Keep it in your back pocket for the next crisis:

Be Human

To begin, let’s unpack your very first Facebook post:

Our hearts are breaking as we see the images of the damage and destruction in our city and the surrounding areas from Hurricane Harvey. We are praying for everyone’s safety in Houston and Texas. As a community we can help each other get through this storm. We appreciate your prayers, both for our city and for Lakewood Church. We are working diligently with the city of Houston to mobilize our many volunteers at shelters around the city as well as various other points of need in and around the Houston area. In addition, we are working with Samaritan’s Purse on major relief efforts. In the days ahead, the needs in our city will be great and we are mobilizing even more volunteers to help those who have been devastated by this storm.
While no one could have anticipated how severe this storm would be, we are thankful for the heroic efforts of our police officers, fire department, first responders, and the many volunteers across our state. We are also thankful for the City of Houston and Harris County officials who were wise enough to prepare accordingly, both in rescue preparations and in sheltering the displaced. We are honored to support them in their efforts.
Victoria and I believe we will all come out stronger and filled with a greater faith than before. We love you and continue to pray for all of Houston and Texas.
To join with Lakewood Church and Samaritan’s Purse in helping our community recover, please visit LakewoodChurch.com/Relief
- Joel & Victoria Osteen

When the very people you lead are in need of the most help, you post a glorified press statement to your Facebook page that can come off as extremely impersonal. PERHAAAPPPSSSS (in my DJ Khaled voice) a video may have been a bit more appropriate. In a video, people could have seen your facial expressions, heard your voice inflections filled with sympathy, and saw your empathy through our screens. It would have humanized the topic and not come off as a detached “hey, I’m out of the office, but I’m praying for you and will talk to you soon” post.

Control The Narrative

The worse thing that happened, that SHOULD HAVE NEVER happened is you becoming silent. There were literally crickets on your end except for the screenshots of whoever on your team was madly hitting the block button on Twitter profiles, who had less than stellar things to say about you. Joel, Joel, Joel…not a good look. Because then it was clear that you heard the people, but was simply ignoring them and playing cleanup on the mess you knew you made. The lesson you should learn here is that playing offense is a lot easier than playing defense. If you have the ball in your hands — yup, a basketball reference — you’re in control of the play versus trying to play mind reader and figure out how to block the opponents shot. This is especially true in the age of social media, where there’s only one you and millions of opponents.

Stay Ahead Of The Story

Again, I’m just trying to help you out here. You preach sermons that millions find value in week after week because of your ability to be clear and concise. You hone in on one major point, explain it, make them feel good about themselves, and then you drop the mic. Your brand messaging and approach to Scripture prove that there’s power in being clear. Same concept applies here. Even if you didn’t want to or couldn’t open the doors to Lakewood for whatever reason, being transparent and providing an alternative course of action would have helped you dodge all the media bullets being fired at you. At least then people would be dealing with your truth versus their version of the truth.

Things took a turn and went really left when people in the area started arriving at Lakewood to prove their side of the truth which was multi-faceted:

  1. Lakewood stands on such high ground that there’s no way it could have been flooded.
  2. Lakewood was dry on the inside and has ample room to house people (about 16,000 to be exact).
  3. Lakewood had people inside their building as proved by the cars in the parking lot and the dude changing light bulbs in the foyer.

Now, you find yourself in a position where your opponents’ truth is being publicized across social media channels and they have successfully taken full control of the story. Eyebrows which weren’t initially raised in your defense now had slight arches in regards to your integrity and the integrity of some of your staff members who had previous claims that the building was flooded and completely unusable.

Here’s a helpful tip for the future: There’s this really cool feature on most social media platforms that allow you to “go live”, record, and post videos that will instantly be shared with your followers. Followers in your terms are merely social media evangelists who will spread the news you share. When you saw things taking a turn, that’s when you should have called a meeting with your team in your situation room or had a long talk with God in your prayer room about what you would tell the people, instead of doing and saying nothing.

So Here’s The Deal…

I’m not saying that your PR team is trash, but I am saying that you should probably reevaluate some of your team members in the near future. A man of your stature doesn’t need to be surrounded by people who allow for such a large gap of vulnerability to your brand because ultimately…you represent Jesus and that’s the even bigger picture here that I just don’t have time to blow the dust off my concordance and get into.

It’s not too late to speak up, Joel. I still have enough faith in you to not believe that you are just laid up on an island waiting for the storm to pass so you can return and act like nothing ever happened. Be bold. Use your voice and your platform to spread your truth. Call up TBN or The Word Network and host a telethon for hurricane relief instead of allowing for air mattresses to magically appear in your church hallways after you’re publicly shamed (because even though you are just trying to help, that did look suspect). Whatever you do, just do it with clarity and do it from your heart. Use the tools at your very fingertips to communicate and talk to the people through what, for some, is the scariest and toughest time of their lives. Now is your time to be the leader you proclaim to be.

Best Regards,

Sherri Jones, MBA

p.s., You can consider this post your free consultation. If you want to pick my brain anymore, just have your people call my people and we’ll figure something out ;)