What The Uproar Over Hurricane Harvey & Joel Osteen Can Teach Leaders About Communicating With The World
Even as Hurricane Harvey batters the city of Houston and the surrounding areas of Texas and Louisiana, mega-church Pastor Joel Osteen found himself and his Lakewood Church at the center of another flood of controversy. He, of the gentle demeanor, low Southern drawl, and nearly ever-present smile, found himself being plowed under by a torrent of criticism over his church’s perceived shrug of the shoulders to needy flood victims.
Prior to the arrival of Harvey last week, Osteen tweeted out a prayer for the residents of the city and Texas at large. The church tweeted a list of resources for those impacted by the storm. But, this wasn’t enough to satisfy certain portions of the internet, who found it appropriate to pile on the vitriol over Osteen’s apparent un-Christian-like stance of keeping the church’s doors closed. Osteen and the church put out a statement claiming that the rains had made the building inaccessible and unsafe to host anyone. The internet responded with disbelief — loud and angry disbelief. Later, Osteen claimed that no one from the city had asked them to open the church for use as a shelter. This only inflamed the controversy more.
Lakewood Church would open it’s doors on Tuesday, providing shelter to many, collecting supplies and coordinating with Houston city officials for food and clothing distribution. Osteen went on ABC’s Good Morning America & NBC’s Today Show the following morning to try to mitigate the damage, and to spread the word about the work that the church was doing. The jury is out on how effectively this will repair the stain on the church’s image, but chances are that many who were willing to believe the worst about one of America’s most famous faith leaders have already closed their ears to any good PR the church may have generated over the last couple of days.
As the Communications Director for Atlanta Berean SDA Church (one of the largest Seventh-Day Adventist churches in the world), I can well understand the challenges of articulating messages in a way that can perpetuate a positive perception in the public eye. Faith groups have traditionally enjoyed a favorable reputation in society. But, that rep has been whittled aways as trust in the institution of religion and its leaders has been eroded, by years of corrupt, greedy figures in the pulpit and their own, very public failings. Needless to say, the credit line of public trust is no longer a given. With all the thought and effort exerted to reach the community and expand the impact of the church, little thought seems to be given to how the messages of faith are recieved.
In my Marketing and PR career, I have worked with houses of faith in moments of crisis and in terms of general outreach. Over and over, there is often a disconnect with how people of faith view their message and the understanding they have of how it is being recieved. This is basic Communications 101. It is the responsibility of the sender to both articulate clearly and to craft their message in a way that the intended audience can recieve it best. Considering how much work that pastors put into writing sermons that land with their congregations, it’s unfortunate that more regard isn’t shown for the manner in which their messages land with other listeners.
There are at least three things that Joel could have done to head off the brouhaha over Lakewood’s closed doors. While some may say there’s no way he could have anticipated the backlash, clearly there was a deficit of goodwill for him, and thus the lessons to be drawn should be given their due. Otherwise, it’s likely to only snowball with some other incident in the future. So, if you are a leader, or just a member, of an organization that seeks to do good, while seeking to build relationships with those outside your own walls, here are those preemptive strikes against a public relations disaster:
- Understand your brand — You’d be surprised how little insight that leaders have about their standing in the public light. Many simply assume that their popularity lends them the credibility the feel they deserve. For someone of Joel Osteen’s stature on the national stage, a periodic review of his public image — both positive and negative — could have told his team what they needed to know. This information is very valuable in communicating with the public. How you frame every tweet, post, statement, or press release, must be done with consistency of tone, and an eye towards the perception you have publicly.
For some this may sound cynical, but I’m sure that Osteen would love to have avoided the harshness of this week’s spotlight, especially considering the additional worry of the safety of his family, his organization, and those who were suffering through Harvey’s relentless pelting of the city. Avoiding PR landmines is every bit as important to your organization’s survival as an Army convoy in Baghdad. It cannot be overlooked or taken lightly. Knowing the amount of rope you have can make the difference between scaling the mountain and hanging yourself. If neither you, or your organization has a true sense of how you are percieved in your community, you are simply asking to be blindsided by the first convenient crisis available.
Interestingly, Osteen has a reputation as an especially non-theological preacher. Many have criticized him for his surface motivational-type sermons. Having a greater sense of the moment and the anxieties that people were feeling could have helped him to appear more sensitive and helpful.
2. Understand your audience — I’m sure when Osteen tweeted his best wishes on last Thursday that he believed it would be a comfort to his congregants and army of fellow believers. But, social media is a megaphone, meaning that anyone within earshot can hear — and misunderstand your words. In fact, many are ready and willing to misinterpret your words in the worst possible way. Now, there is simply no way for anyone to please everyone all the time. But, instead of simply offering prayers, perhaps the pastor and church could have tweeted out some helpful tips on preparedness, who to call in the event of an emergency (as they did prior to the storm erupting), and how they were preparing to be of service to the community.
Knowing that there are others listening besides the converted, helps you to listen more, to understand their pain and frustrations, and to impact their lives with more value, on their terms, so you can get them to be more receptive in the future.
3. Know your position — This is somewhat related to Point No. 1, in that it requires you to understand your place in the community, and what you represent to the public, in a larger sense. Despite the erosion of trust in faith institutions, people still look to churches to uphold their creed. If you articulate a mission to help those who are most in need, then you will be expected to be most present when people need you the most. By allowing themselves to be painted as nonchalant — or worse even — as lying about the status of the church, as it related to use as a shelter, Osteen and Lakewood could be played up as the worst example of a greedy, self-serving entity.
I truly doubt that Pastor Osteen forgot this, but it wasn’t apparent from the initial response of the church. There was far too much silence from him and the church over the weekend. Had they primed the pump with updates from the national weather service, tweeted out short video messages from the pastor showing they were monitoring the situation and maintaining contact with city officials, even put out even more information on ways that people could donate and volunteer, this would have bought them far more validity from the public. There have been many defending Osteen and attempting to debunk the narrative of a mega-millionaire pastor who simply didn’t care about the suffering in his own city. But, simply showing more cognition of the stature that people hold for the clergy and organizations of faith in times of crisis could have saved them a ton of headaches.
I spoke with a friend of the church this afternoon. They were very disturbed by the rumors and false information they felt was being maliciously distributed throughout social media, and the media at-large. I articulated many of these thoughts to them, but they didn’t feel that my points carried much weight. They felt the attacks on Pastor Osteen were personal, and they were offended as well. My point is not to attack the character of this leader or others who are well-intended in their mission to serve others. But, lack of awareness of how to reach those who are not considered can severely handicap the best intentions of even the strongest organization.
One of the things that church leaders must learn to do is to see things from a greater perspective. Often, great care is given to how the members will percieve what the leadership says, but not so much to those beyond the church walls. But, messages shouted in silos only echo inside of them. Then you are literally only preaching to the choir, and your impact will never reverbrate beyond the pews.
It may not seem fair, but would you rather deal with a bit more thought beforehand, or a lot more cleanup afterwards?
Getting ahead of the narrative isn’t just good PR, it’s good ministry. It’s good outreach. It lays the foundation to build strong relationships and to effect greater good in the world. It saves you the extended time and effort of attempting to rebuild lost trust and repair a negative image. It makes you a better leader and a better organization.
Either take the time to strategically frame your message, or spend your time trying to reframe the one being written about you. Believe me, the latter is much harder to do.