Communications Officer Jennifer Hatt was in Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 12-15, 2018
It was a Pitch Perfect morning: breakfast overlooking the river, then a session on how to ‘sell’ your story to the media.
Sharing his expertise on working with broadcast and print journalists was Mike Counter of St. Norbert College.
St. Norbert, as its name would suggest, is the only Norbertine university and one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the United States. Before he was the college’s director of media relations, Mike was on the other side of the microphone, working the sports beats for radio and television. He now leverages his experience into managing relationships with 130-plus reporters and media outlets to proactively share St. Norbert’s messaging, respond to inquiries and manage issues.
His first task was to separate the truth from the ideal.
Our first task was to discuss and share the main purpose and function of the media.
Initial answers offered action words like ‘advocate’, ‘watchdog’, ‘investigate’, ‘inform.’
All well and good, but it was the cynical who won the day.
The main purpose and function of the media is to make money, we were told.
The media is not a public service, but a business.
That said, like any business, the media is constantly seeking reliable suppliers at the lowest price possible. The need is to increase content for an increasing variety of multimedia productions, while maintaining or even decreasing the costs. And therein lies the opportunity for Catholic communicators. As a creators of quality content, Catholic communicators can be that low or no-cost supply of reliable, relevant information.
How to do that?
The guiding principle is this: there is no such thing as ‘free media.’
Even if no money changes hands, the coverage is not ‘free’ but ‘earned.’ It is earned through building relationships and trust, being a solid invitation and source of information while mindful that the choice can be guided but not controlled.
His nuggets of wisdom:
“News coverage is a human endeavour.”
In other words, no two operations, or two days for that matter, have the same formula for what gets coverage and what does not. Just because it’s been covered before, it may not necessarily get attention again.
Give them as much as possible.
Reporters today are having to do print, photos, audio and video for multiple platforms on deadlines that can be in minutes rather than the traditional hours or days. There is little time for extended conversations, site tours, or background research. Providing as much information as possible – including pronounciation of names and definitions of key terms – not only increases the chances of solid coverage but helps build relationships with grateful reporters. Mike said his office keeps a video library with footage of the college in all seasons, and of all major buildings inside and out. For applicable stories, these stock shots can be shared, saving the journalist time.
Have a list of spokespeople at the ready on a variety of topics and subjects. Be proactive and share these with media outlets rather than always waiting for the media to call.
Think ‘visual’ when pitching an idea for print or television, ‘interview’ for pitching to radio. Send clips or samples if possible. Be aware that you are competing for a shrinking amount of space or air time.
Human interest stories are top pitches to the media.
Respect their deadlines.
Keep an eye on trending topics. Is there something national or global that you can localize?
Ensure key information is available. How many people does this topic affect? What is the cost? The change? Who is involved?
Think all media forms. Most outlets today have a website and social media platform that requires constant feeding. Even if a story doesn’t make it into the day’s top news, it could be found on the website, which has the benefit of reaching a wide audience or a longer period of time.
Have a crisis management plan. Part of the relationship is being prepared to give them what they want or need. “If you want positive stories, you need to be ready for the negative stories,” Mike advises.
Keep lines of communication open. Being consistent, even when it seems like there is no response, will eventually pay off in either interaction or trust.
Many Catholic communicators at the conference are in dioceses with Catholic newspapers and/or broadcast systems. I shared with the group my experience as a mainstream journalist and as a Catholic communicator where news from a church or diocese is automatically tagged for the religion page or Sunday morning interview slot rather than the general news stream, labeled for its source rather than its content. Mike admitted the concept was interesting, but he had never encountered it. A few others offered that they could see how it would happen, but in their worlds where Catholic news sources were as prevalent as mainstream, the flow between ‘religious’ and ‘general’ was much more free.
But as Mike said, it is a human system. There are always relationships to be built and opportunities to develop. That was my takeaway.
Then it was time to head away, back to Nova Scotia to continue processing all that these four days have provided. As I was sharing some of my week with a friend she made the comment that Catholic communications must be increasingly hard as so many people are leaving the church. No task is easy, especially one as variable and evolving as communicating our faith, and despair is a constant cloud that can sometimes obscure the possibilities. It is true, our clergy and faithful are aging, our society is changing, the future is unclear. What I saw in Green Bay, however, was hope in action. While statistics may point to the slow demise of an institution, this conference showed Catholic communities actively engaged in their faith. Many are larger that our diocese in population and resources, but it seems their success is not based on number of people, but on consistent celebration of who they were as a faith community, and constant invitation to connect: through Mass, through events, through media. It wasn’t just the Facebook page or radio show; it was the clear messaging behind and through it that helped grow and retain the audience. As the Packers have demonstrated as one of the smallest NFL franchises in population areas but one of the most supported teams in franchise history – and a huge economic generator for its host city – good things happen when you simply celebrate who you are.
It was a roller coaster day … not Elvis’ favourite roller coaster the Zippin Pippin which I’m told is among Green Bay’s many attractions … but in promise and expectation. It was a day full of surprises, some gift-wrapped, others requiring some sifting from the chaff.
First thing, I found the river. The day’s sessions took me to the far end of the convention centre, where outside the expansive windows was this wonderful view, complete with a welcoming committee of Canada geese.
Morning Mass was in one of these Riverside rooms, led by a Bishop that before I knew his name seemed to know each of us, greeting us with a warm gaze and gentle powerful voice, like a deep still pool. Ironically, his homily was of rain, the gift from God that only He can provide, despite the rituals and prayers and research seeking ways to control when and how we receive water from the sky. I would see this Bishop again at lunchtime, receiving the annual Bishop John England Award for preservation of a free press. Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, a place where it hardly rains. His gifts, however, flowed to each of us that morning.
My first morning session was The Mystery of the Written Word. As a writer this session spoke loudly to me from the schedule, for its description and its presenter. Bishop Robert Morneau, now Associate Bishop Emeritus with the Diocese of Green Bay (which means old, he told us), is a prolific author of books for adults and children, and a master homilist, despite being called the family wimp for retiring at 79 (his sister at age 84 remains a full-time high school teacher). He speaks each word carefully yet from memory, recites poetry flawlessly with the quiet passion of a brilliant candle, and always lists things in threes to honour the Trinity. He did, however, open with the Four Questions of Life:
Who am I?
Where am I going?
How do I get there?
Where are the cookies?
And it just kept getting better.
He spoke of writing as a gift, which as stewards of God we have a requirement to pursue.
How do you find your gift?
He suggests asking a secondary question:
When are you happiest and most alive?
Whatever your answer, stewardship of your gift asks that you:
- Receive God’s gift gratefully
- Nurture it responsibly
- Share it justly and sacrificially
- Return these gifts to God abundantly
Another of his gems:
We live on images, of who we are, who others are, our stories, metaphors.
Images lead to attitudes.
Attitudes lead to behaviour.
He shared some images of people we meet, know, work with, ourselves:
Not engaged, looking around, having a good time
We all carry wounds, being in touch with them leads to compassion
Planting seeds, growing new, evoking colour and scent and food for thought
He shared also his prolific love of books, calling Emily Dickinson his girlfriend, quoting Shakespeare and e.e. cummings and 12th century poets as smoothly and reverently as paging through ancient texts. In our era of screen time and digital platforms, Bishop Morneau’s passion and invitation to the art of writing was an oasis immersing us in why we write: to find the words the world longs to read.
Introducing and closing the session was Patricia Kasten, editor of The Compass (weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay), puzzle creator and author. Cruciverbalist, her business card says, and it’s a real word, one of many she has discovered in her years of creating puzzles. Her writing style intrigued me, and her presence encouraged me to ask: might she want to chat at a break? Indeed she would, and we spent a lovely 20 minutes sharing our career tracks, inspirations, challenges and story ideas. The cathedral of her diocese is St. Francis Xavier. She was aware of our university. A cross-border story exchange sometime? Who knows. It seems she has more than enough content to fill each edition but it’s always good to keep imagining.
Then came the afternoon.
All sessions are concurrent, with up to seven to choose from in each time slot, so attending one comes at the expense of several others that might have been great as well. I selected my two sessions based on what I read in the program.
What I read, I didn’t receive.
But I did receive some things in what I heard.
The first session was Strategic Planning for Communications.
As we review our own diocesan plan, the timing to earn of objectives, clear execution and accountabilities seemed perfect timing.
Our presenter was enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
There was some good discussion about choosing values, attaching strategies to those values, and developing actions to deliver on those strategies. Also helpful was the definition of organizational culture: “How we get things done.”
A great checklist for plan success is:
Does everyone in the organization understand the decisions and actions that are their responsibility?
Does information flow to leadership freely?
How often are decisions second-guessed?
But with the zeal of an Oprah convert he dove into the personal, urging us to leave our organizational values list to note the top memories that shaped our childood, adulthood, career. We needed this, he insisted, to be sure we are living our values and our team is living their values as well. An interesting concept, but too deep for an hour and a tad out of place in a room of Catholic communicators: living our values is no doubt what led us to our jobs in the first place. Sticking it out, though, yielded some interesting discussion about the unique challenges of our workplace culture, rooted in 2000 years of history and striving to be relevant in the modern age.
One participant described a “tension between idealized values and lived values” in our Catholic workplaces, the idealized values being oft-quoted elements such as evangelization and social justice, the lived values being protection and control of how our faith is interpreted and worshipped.
“We’re not challenging church, we are challenging how we live church,” it was suggested, something we do as communicators to help the church grow rather than age in the new millennium.
Then came the next presentation,
Screen Generation: Understanding an Audience that’s Plugged in but Disconnected.
It sounded perfect, especially for our Youth Ministry. As workshops have been saying all week, there is a need to connect with the next generation. Understanding their media choices is the first step.
The opening was strong. We need to ask:
What use do people make of the media?
What gratification do people derive from media consumption?
With youth, the statistics were no surprise. Even at age 0-6, 83% of children surveyed (U.S. study) are using some kind of screen media. From a young age, media consumers know they have choices and have no problem exercising them.
The ready availability of screen media and culture contains an invitation, I believe, to re-examine messaging, and his talk alluded to that. In a society where myths have been replaced by science, youth often turn to the fantasy of video games or social media to be or find heroes. Our faith stories are full of heroes. A great opportunity exists to connect the two.
But throughout the talk was the theme of the negative, how children are left unsocialized and inert by overreliance on technology, and how through materials for parents we need to educate our children in the faith. It was a lament for a past time that at first irritated, then called for compassion. So many grew up in a clearly-defined Catholic culture that defined and nurtured lives. To lose that is frightening; the desire to protect and share it with the next generation is strong. As a good professor, he made me think. As a good Christian, he made me feel. That was my takeaway.
Plus, he quoted Marshall McLuhan, one of my heroes and the only other Canadian I encountered at this conference to date, so we have so common ground. The quote, worth pondering in itself: “We invent technology, then technology invents us.”
And the day wasn’t over. At night was a special screening of the movie Indivisible.
Due for theatre release in October, Indivisible is the true story of U.S. Army Chaplain Darren Turner whose marriage and life, and lives of his family, were shaken to the core by post traumatic stress he developed while on a 15-month deployment to Iraq. It was a convincing look at the effects of deployment on soldiers and the families left behind, but also the violent battles waged internally and alone when grief and terror become too overwhelming to bear. It was a movie that spoke on many levels: to anyone who has been or knows someone in military service, the joy and pain of family life, the impact of faith on navigating the darkness. The trailer can be seen at IndivisibleMovie.com.
As Bishop Morneau said, an experience unreflected upon is dehumanizing.
Today was a brilliant lesson in sitting with experiences, reflecting with intellect, responding emotionally within, then sharing through words what is left.
That was the greatest gift of all. It just took some time to unwrap.
Coming up for Friday
Pitch Perfect: How to Sell your Story
Then it’s off to the airport and home.
Blog on Friday’s session and final thoughts will be posted on Monday.
Happy Father’s Day!
“Let us boldy become citizens of the digital world.”
Papa’s powerful words were evoked often this day by master communicators sharing their experience and motivation for engaging in the work they do.
The morning was a Master Class session, three hours on a topic of choice – and that was the most difficult part. Seven topics, at least four of which I felt called to learn more of, but all concurrent. So, I spent my morning with Nicole Ossevoort, Communications and Social Media Specialist with the Diocese of Syracuse, New York. (https://www.syracusediocese.org/) as she shared her social media and networking strategies, and we the participants offered our questions and insights.
By the numbers, the Diocese of Syracuse serves 230,000 Catholics in 127 parishes and several schools across seven counties. Nicole is part of a communications team that provides newspaper, television, social media and marketing. In her job alone she administers eight Facebook accounts, three Twitter feeds, two Instagram accounts, one YouTube channel and two MailChimp accounts, plus serving as webmaster, consultant, and even an on-air host for the in-house television news show. It was the latter job that got her the most fame: “people would stop me in the grocery store and say ‘I really liked that necklace you were wearing the other night,’ “The thing people notice …
Nicole’s career began in IT, studying system analytics, so her evolution to the visible side of communications has been supported by her solid knowledge of data: how it works, how to get it, and how to use it. She is also very busy, and points out it has taken her and her team four years of intense visioning, planning and relationship building to get their systems in place and working together.
They have invested considerable time and money in Google analytics, determining that 96% of adult 30-49 use the internet, 77% have a smart phone and 80% of smart phone owners use the internet for information, which makes their online presence a priority.
Giving life to the data is their tag line:
Our Catholic Faith:
Know It Live It Share It
Bridging the two are their systems, which hold some similarity to ours:
Catholic Sun newspaper and Syracuse Catholic TV
Annual tech day/communications summit
Weekly email newsletter
The greatest investment of time and work continues to be in building relationships, generating and channelling the information and enthusiasm – or at least awareness – that fuels these communications systems. Nicole and her team work hard, but she says the payoff is seen when the effort is targeted and there is collaboration – or at least an openness – to the offerings.
The work continues, for all of us, and now, there is another friend to help along the way.
There is no greater friend on Earth of communications in our Catholic faith than Pope Francis. His presence in social media has become a powerful connection to our faith for the devout, the lukewarm, and non-believers alike. “This is so inspiring, omg! Even though I’m an atheist,” tweeted one fan. “Can you STOP making me fall in love with you more every day?” shared another.
These examples and more were shared by Natasa Govekar, Director of the Department of Pastoral Theology for the Vatican Secretariat of Communications, and our keynote speaker. A warm, calming presence with a brilliant sense of humour unfettered by her struggle with the English language (‘you would rather my broken English than my fluent Slovenian’), Dr. Govekar was a model of communications both academic and applied. She shared the Vatican journey of communication reform from the economic review launched in 1996, followed by a strategic analysis in 2000 and media analysis in 2013 that led in June 2015 (the same month our diocesan Communication Officer position was filled) to widespread convergence and reform of Vatican communications systems. The result was cost-saving, but the motivation was service of the highest kind. As Pope Francis said:
“For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives,
how can we fail to share that love with others?”
The messages and images shared on social media are “simplified” and “convincing’, says Pope Francis, because “where there is synthesis, there is your heart,” wherein lies the strength of evangelization: showing not just words but a life transformed by God’s presence. When asked if she "was having fun" in her job, she replied thoughtfully: "Sometimes I have fun. Sometimes I have to pray a lot. This is a beautiful, beautiful challenge, but it is also very hard." Her quiet strength and joy gave us all hope that we can continue with the "very hard" because, yes, the work we do is a "beautiful challenge."
After a bit of a break to process the beauty of our keynote’s words and presentation, we again became pilgrims of the pavement, boarding buses for Champion, Wisconsin, a tiny community with a massive message to share.
In 1859, when the region was nothing but trees and dreams, a young Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise was carrying grain from the mill when at the edge of her forest path she spotted a lady of gold and white. The second time, Adele was with others but only she saw the glowing figure that seemed to be beckoning her. She told her clergy, word spread, and her father built a tiny log chapel to Our Lady of Good Help. In 1871, a fire razed northern Wisconsin, burning a million acres and taking an estimated 2000 lives. As the flames drew close, families and livestock fled to the chapel to seek refuge and pray. For hours as the fire advanced, those inside prayed the rosary, until rain doused the inferno and spared the chapel, the land upon which it stood “shining like an emerald in a sea of ash.” This was among the stories shared by Fr. John Broussard, rector of what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help (www.shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com). Recognized as a Diocesan Shrine in 2010 and designated a National Shrine by the USCCB in 2016, it remains the only Church-approved Marian site in North America. Thousands visit each year, some leaving behind crutches or other signs of healing. Whatever the calling or belief, it is a place of great beauty, like a gem in the sunlight, spinning to reveal many sides to a story.
That’s what I discerned when I had supper with St. Francis.
Walking the grounds in itself is a spiritual experience, the world of belief framed by white fences and a culture of the land. Beyond the shrine are vast fields of green, farms that arose from the ashes of the inferno. Near the entrance, a few men lean on a pickup truck next to a handmade sign offering fresh produce for sale. From a tree near the visitor centre, a John Deere birdfeeder sways in the warm spring breeze. I’m told it was put there by their maintenance man as a personal dig to the volunteer sharing this story with me. In farm country, it’s not about what team you root for but what tractor you drive.
The landscape is dotted with grottos – tiny outdoor gardens with statues, flowers and benches, all nestled in piles of fresh mulch. The place is well-loved. Fresh concrete steps lead to the gift shop, which in itself is beautiful to browse but jarring. Sweatshirts proclaim the readiness for Battle. Pillowcases with an angry sword-wielding St. Michael offered for a prayerful sleep make me step back in surprise. Invitations to be soldiers, knights, vanquishers of evil. It seemed so out of place with the tranquility outside, but for some, it is a cruel world from which we and our Lord need protection. Where do I fit? Are words enough? As I stood in line for our evening reception, as I attempted to juggle a plate, a glass, and conversation in a surging crowd of hungry minglers, I glanced across the crowd to a shaded grotto and familiar figure.
I would dine with St. Francis of Assisi tonight. I settled on the bench, shade in front of me, sun on my back, and savoured every bite as St. Francis and his companion animal, a blue-eyed wolf, perhaps. The buzz of the crowd drifted across. I was called to be part of this group.
But in this moment, this place, I am called to peace.
I sat, unthinking, fully engaged in the colours, the sounds, the feel of the place. Then I am joined by Jo-Ann, ‘a J-sister’ she laughed as she introduced herself. Had I been to Assisi, she asked. I hadn’t, but she had and in a brief description she took me there, speaking of the clouds below, the cliff on which she stood, the place where her husband heard his calling to become a deacon. And after years of study he did, only to be taken by cancer five years after his ordination. That was her calling today, to pray for peace and understanding. And to marvel at the trees. We have the same evergreens in Nova Scotia, and she listened intently about the flowers we grew here (when not covered in frost). She was from Houston, the lady who joined us mid-conversation was from Oklahoma.
By the time I stood to leave, our benches were full. We spoke little, but shared much.
The Mystery of the Written Word
Strategic Planning for Communications
Pitch Perfect – How to Sell your Story
Titletown is the nickname of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a leafy riverside city famous for cheese, Catholicism and football, not necessarily in that order. And not mutually exclusive, as an hour or so in town has proven.
For our conference opening we few hundred delegates were bussed to Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. To football fans, it is a monument to the sport and to a franchise that has claimed 13 championship titles and the hearts of millions in its 100-year history. To Catholic communicators who watch the SuperBowl only for the half time shows (no names mentioned) it seemed an unlikely place to open a conference dedicated to celebrating and supporting news of our Catholic faith.
It was, however, the perfect place. Here’s why.
Powerful is the playing field that blends secular and spiritual, and Lambeau Field does this masterfully. The fans who flock to games in person or in broadcast include practising Catholics, born Catholics, and a whole host of other faiths, all united, yes, in their team’s quest for a win but also in values our faith holds dear: working together, striving to be your best, weathering the dark times, celebrating the victories and never, ever giving up hope.
And so to football fans, Lambeau Field is a shrine. To the cynical, it is an overindulgence in resources and merchandizing. To Catholic communicators, always searching for new ideas and ways to share our message with a wider world, Lambeau field was a classroom: a showcase of history, traditions and accomplishments; an example of the celebration of a culture that is proud, loud, and showing how it can be connected to literally everything in life.
The Hall of Fame is full of photos, statistics and inspiring quotes, and also a ‘Selfie section’ where those inclined could pose with props (including the renowned cheese heads), inviting the loyal, the new, even the unconvinced to put themselves in the embrace of the moment. Browse the pro shop – at 23,000 square feet it is a department store of gold and green. There are slow cookers and dishware, Christmas ornaments and nail polish, toys, jewellry, blankets and clothing to fit every member of the family (including the pets) from tuques to socks. Marketing at its best, but also a showcase that an institution with strong supporters and values to which everyone can relate can become part of everyday life. We eat, we make notes, we need jackets to keep warm … why not do these things and celebrate the team they love at the same time? Marketing is a part of what Catholic communicators do, sharing the billions of bits of joy evoked by and for our faith in a story, an image, an invitation to embrace it in everyday life.
One of the franchise’s most popular assets, however, is their chaplain, Fr. Jim Baraniak. Mass at training camps and prayer on the field is welcomed, cheered, embraced. Affable and engaging to hear, Fr. Jim speaks from years of experience in the locker room and in prison ministry, also serving as chaplain at the local maximum security facility. It was his presence during a time of grief, supporting renowned quarterback Brett Favre and family after the sudden death of his father, that shared the Packers’ spiritual treasure to the world. Photos of Fr Jim comforting the family on the field went viral. ‘We’re praying for you,’ fans shouted from the stands as cameras rolled. The secular media, once there only for the game, then turned their attention to the quiet man in white vestments. What did he do? How does the team respond? He answered every question and more, as he continues to do. Providing comfort in a time of need became not about the faith, not about the famous person’s life, but about the human desire to connect. Living the faith in everyday life, whether you realize it or not.
Conferences like the CMC are rich in these moments, scheduled or not.
As we waited for the bus, I learned of a popular video produced b:y the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon that shows how – and how not - to receive the Eucharist:
And the #liveyourbestLent campaign by the Archdiocese of Detroit that had everyone from on-air hosts to teenagers sharing their Lenten moments.
That was in 10 minutes of conversation. And it was only the first day.
Up next for the week:
Morning Master Camp
Making Real Connections with Parishioners and Communities on line
Dr. Natasa Govekar, director of the theological-pastoral department of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications
Tour and Opening Mass
National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help
The Mystery of the Written Word
Strategic Planning for Communications
Pitch Perfect – How to Sell your Story