Friday, March 13, 2009

Choosing to go unheard

Once, long ago, I was on the communications committee of a diocese. We wanted to do a radio ad campaign. We had a one-time offer for a really terrific package that would have let our bishop's voice be heard three weekdays a week between the traffic and the weather during the morning rush hour on the most listened to radio station in the state. And we would have had this great deal for a year. We had an interesting script to start with, a musical signature was written for us by a musician in the diocese that would have made the ad stand out, we had the technical help to put the thing together.

So we ran it past our bishop--after all we hoped for his voice, or at least his approval to let one of our clergy with radio experience do the talking. His response? He suggested that we might do this instead on the public radio station that covered only the capital city area. Because that is what he listened to. And that is what his friends listened to. Heck, that is what is most of us on the communications committee listened to.

So the plan died.

Well, not exactly. The Catholic diocese bought the space instead. They already owned their own FM radio station and they added this to their existing spectrum.

This exercise turned out to be a lesson in deciding who we were not going to speak to.

We live in a world where the average person makes distinct choices as to how they connect with the world...they can choose newspaper (print or on-line) or tv (over the air, cable, satellite, video downloads), internet (web 1.o, social networking, blogging), radio (over the air, podcasting, and audio downloads) even how they write (postal service, print publishing, e-mail, blogging) and use the phone (land-line, cell, satellite, text) and in-between (YouTube, twitter, text, IM). The media does not choose us. We choose the media.

And this has a profound effect on how we understand and interact with the world.

Everyday in parish ministry is a communications challenge. And it runs in two dimensions: personal and technical.

We in the ministry biz spend a lot of time on the personal...the pastoral arts. But we also have to confront the technical.

The technical is an everyday challenge because everyday we have to confront how the heck we can communicate with large numbers of people every day in a way that they will see and get the message.

But the technical is also the personal because it turns out that we live in a world where technology is not only an impersonal thing that reaches into our lives. Communications technology is a choice that tells us how a person chooses to interact with the world.

Right now, in my own church building the active equipment we use for communicating symbolize the challenge. In the main church building, across the alley from our offices and education building, we have two active phones that have rotary dials. The only connection between the outside world and where we worship, socialize, feed the hungry and host 12-step and other groups is through POTS. (That is, Plain Old Telephone Service).

Meanwhile, in the office and education building, we have four phone extensions (including that church POTS line), an IP phone system that runs over the computer network, a brand new server, an wireless hotspot for visitors, and bells and whistles galore.

Which means that our own parish, we have two worlds side by side. I am struck by the symbolism of this reality: where we do traditional things, we have only one connect with the outside world--POTS. Where we do business and classes, we have a much wider array of choices. The important thing is that by our technology choices we are choosing whom we reach out to.

This Lent we have been holding small groups meeting in people's homes. Everyone has received a written invitation and a follow up phone call. We have reached--that is directly connected with--only about 40% of our congregation. Not bad. But it has been a challenge getting the word out. Especially in finding all the different channels of communication that our members have chosen for themselves.

One issue that we have uncovered is that a few people who still live in town and still come to church (we have seen their presence among us regularly) no longer have land lines but we don't have their cell-phone numbers.

Another challenge is that very often every member of the household has a cell number and that is how they keep in touch with each other and the world. We are hearing from people who got a voice message on their land line...and didn't replay it. Oh...they say, I forgot to play my machine or listen to my voice mail. Why? I ask. Well, it's usually filled with, etc.

Most households do not have a single e-mail address but several. One or more per person per household.

What's fascinating is that in my conversations with people, they consider themselves quite conservative when it comes to technology. They don't twitter, use facebook or blog. They haven't a clue about social networking. They may still read the morning paper...printed on paper. But they routinely use e-mail to send notes and pictures and jokes to their relatives. They carry a cell phone "for emergencies" but use as many as thirty minutes of phone time per week. They take for granted the myriad of channels on cable or satellite television. To them, the technology is an a toaster. They just don't realize how the technology is changing how they interact with the world.

And then there is the newsletter. For a significant portion of the congregation, the paper newsletter is their link to the wider doings of the parish. But most people don't even open it. And since the rate structure for the postal service is more and more trying to sweep small bulk mailers (those who send 100,000 pieces or less) out of the system, we are forced to look for altheratives. The unopened newsletter is often replaced with one or more on line mediums: the blog, the e-postcard, the text.

This means that we have to repeat and layer what we say in multipe formats. All the time.

Every announcement that goes into the bulletin has to be blogged as an individual item; sent out in the weekly e-newsletter, printed (often several times) in the bulletin and then in the printed newsletter. We are considering how to tweet or IM the folks who use texting systems and Blackberrys. A presence on Facebook is not out of the question. And, oh yeah, our present web-site sucks.

If we are just going to stay where we are and not shrink--let alone approach effectiveness and get the message of the Gospel out there-- we have to become wise users of as many layers of communications technology as possible, and that means we have to be wise choosers and open listeners to how people choose their mediums.

So we have to start over: we have to census the parish (again) this time coming up with a way of doing this that captures the individual cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses while at the same time assuring people of their privacy.

Which brings me back to the personal side of communications technology.

I have come to realize that it is not just a generational question: it is not only that old folks use POTS and younger people use Web 2.0. It is also a question of choice.

We live in a world dominated by a free-market of ideas in which the Christian gospel is but one voice in the market. And we live in a world where people have a choice as how they may connect with the world.

For the average parish in the average town, this means that we have to spend more time and energy thinking about how we do basic communication and spend more time faithfully doing it.

When we choose a medium to use or not use, we are also choosing who we are not speaking to. When we--out of choice or necessity--choose to only communicate through the printed newsletter then we are choosing not to reach out to those who never read printed mail except for (maybe) an invoice. When we choose to advertise only through the radio or the yellow-pages or mass-mailing, then who are we choosing who not to reach.

And it works the other way, too. When we drop the phone message and the newsletter in favor of the internet, who are we leaving out?

Again, it is not just generational. I have lots of older folks who are very web-savvy. And I have young people in my church who are approaching twenty one and still don't drive. We live in a world where everyone can (and does) choose how they wish to connect with the world around them. As communicators--and as Christians we are and always have been communicators-- our choices to use or not use certain technologies will by definition determine who it is we are speaking to.

Our choices will also determine who we leave out.

This means that parishes and dioceses have to be intentional and committed to layering their communications strategy as much as they able, and this may mean that parishes have to band together to work together on getting the word out. This means we need more Christians, lay and ordained, using as many layers as possible.

It means that dioceses and congregations and our lay and ordained leaders must begins seeing ourselves as a network rather than as members of related stand-alone institutions. The Apostle Paul likened this network to a human body.

For us Episcopalians, it means that priests and bishops have to set the example in being proactive in their use of communications tools: the more a priest or bishop blogs, tweets, and uses FB, as well as writing in the diocesan paper and speaks from the pulpit, the more that pastoral leader shows us that Good News is for telling and that we are willing to meet people where they are.

We have content. We Christians believe the Gospel is the most important content of all. Do the choices we make in how we share that content rise to the importance we give it? Who do we choose to tell? Who do we choose to not to tell?

Read more here.


Jenifer said... is a way to send out mass text messages by reading your message into the phone. The online software coverts it to text and sends it out to your list. Text messaging is where the younger generation is. E-mail is passe.

Another new technology is utterli, which records your voice through phone or hosts audio files you upload. You can embed the code for the utter on your FB page or send it to friends.

Just some ways to communicate....

Veritas said...

The old and the new-I am struck of the two sides of this doing our church's newsletter. We have some who have never used a computer and would not be able to read the newsletter sent via email. On the other side of the coin, we have some who would be offended if they recieved it via paper. Right now our culture is divided and perhaps can be seen the strongest in the local parish-between the computer literate and illiterate.

Andrew Gerns said...


This is why I advocate layering communications.

We are past the time when one technology supercedes another and all we have to do is wait for computer to terminate print. I believe that we are entering an era when many technologies will exist (and to some extent compete) at the same time.

It will be the consumers who choose the formats they use rather than the content producers who choose the formats consumers must use. This means we who develop content have to adapt to the several choices the consumers make.

What I am advocating is a layered approach. That is, the simultaneous use of printed bulletins and newsletters, e-newsletter, e-postcards (dressed up e-mail to a pre-determined, self-subscribed list), blogs and web-sites. If we can fold in the texting technology that Jenifer points to, so much the better.

But the idea of bridging the divide you describe is very much on my mind.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for an insightful post on this, Andrew. I plan to share it with the dean of the Cathedral I serve, as well as with our Evangelism and Communications Commissions. I'm also thrilled to find the Share the Bread blog. It looks like a wonderful evangelism resource.