Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has a wonderful story titled “Churches Using Humorous Signs to Spread Gospel.” It talks about how some pastors are putting signs outside their church with messages like, “Under same management for 2000 years,” and “Stop, drop and roll doesn’t work in hell.”
Over the years, I’ve had to communicate crisis communication messages that have been associates with both religious matters and work I’ve done for personal injury attorneys. And in almost all instances, I was never able to use humor, except once as it related to the ACLU warning public schools about using the expression, “Merry Christmas.” For that media announcement I used the message, “The ACLU Grinch Who Wants to Steal Christmas.”
In the case of working with a personal injury attorney, we positioned him as a consumer advocate with a message about home premises liabilities: “Check the Safety of Your Property for Ghosts and Goblins this Halloween.” So I’m a big advocate of taking touchy subjects like religion and bodily harm and finding a way to bridge your message to the media and public. And I’ve kept in mind three simple rules:
- Everyone cares about their personal safety and life and death issues. It’s a safe bet; everyone wants to know how to protect themselves now and are curious about what happens to them after they die.
- Find the justification for the most subjective issues. Life after death? Heaven or hell? The churches mentioned in the Sun-Times article have done a great job of finding messages to get people through their doors. Now, they need to provide the evidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is real and not a fairy tale.
- Humor can be a safe way to start the discussion about a more serious matter. As someone who spent many hours in dingy bars working on my stand-up comedy routines at open mics, I can tell you there’s a lot of pain in the lives of comedians. I learned that I could talk to these people about joke structure and then move into more serious personal matters and share my faith. I found myself “preaching” at some colorful night spots.
So whether your message is outside a house of worship or on the home page of your website, keep in mind humor can be the key to reaching people to open discussions on some tough topics.
CBS News recently reported that a restaurant in Indiana decided to pull billboards with a cult reference to “Kool-Aid” that reminded people of the Jonestown Massacre which left 900 dead. While I have no idea of whether this restaurant consulted with their public relations folks or their attorneys, this advertising campaign could have warranted a little more thought.
There’s something I call “corporate sibling rivalry.” It has to do with the supposed battled that rages between a company’s public relations staff and their lawyer. It goes like this: the public relations expert wants to get the best information out in the marketplace as soon as possible, something that is very important in a crisis communications situation. The attorneys don’t want anything going out without their approval, and in many cases will err on the side of caution to say nothing. The rivalry comes in because both the public relations people and the attorneys want to protect their clients.
There is a win/win for the lawyers and the public relations counselors that come by thinking of a couple of guiding principles:
- Have the conversation before you have the conversation. It’s the responsibility of the public relations professional to know everyone who would be involved in public image decisions, long before those decisions are made. Setting up a protocol of how information will be processed is something to determine long before a crisis hits.
- There’s more than one way to use innovation in communication. In a crowded media message marketplace, I appreciate that you need something clever to clear through the clutter. However, it reminds me of something I learned about communications in grade school. There are two ways to describe what McDonald’s sells: they sell either 100% beef hamburgers or ground up cows on a bun. Same message, but one creates a linguistic liability.
- Default to the lawyers. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that the attorney’s opinion trumps the public relations professional. This is especially true when litigation will come into play. While the public relations person should know the rules of the road with something like pre-trial publicity, it’s the lawyers who know what is distributed publicly that can come back to haunt the company years down the road when the company is in court and the media has moved on to the next big story.