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Talking your faith with others
February 3, 2003
(Thanks to David Ortman, Frank Moore, Ron Byler, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and others for sharing from their experiences.)
Many people of faith who stand against a war with Iraq have viewpoints the media want to hear and need to heed. Here are hints for effective communication.
- Know who you are-a Christian against war. This is a faith statement, not a political position. You are representing Jesus, Prince of Peace, who spoke boldly yet carefully. Stay away from talk about being on the left or right, Republican or Democrat.
- Know what you want to say. Before you might meet a reporter, have a SHORT statement ready, a sound bite. What is a sound bite? It is what Jesus used all the time. "Blessed are the poor." "Love your neighbor as yourself." Short, memorable and to the point. Be creative and don't use clichés. (David Ortman)
- Be prepared. Check facts thoroughly and use them carefully.
Create reference sheets and keep them up-to-date.
Have names and contact information of experts ready, but realize
that local media often prefer to work with local people.
If you aren't sure of a fact you'd like to use, volunteer
to find it and e-mail or fax the information immediately.
(For helpful information, see the Mennonite Church USA
media advisories and
list of peace responses.)
- Focus what you say after you understand the intended audience and purpose of the article. Watch your tone of voice and choice of words. While it is easy to get frustrated, angry, and sarcastic because of current events and political issues, you might negatively change the impact of your words by doing so. You are being contacted as a member of faith community. People want to hear from a person of love and hope.
- Say what you want to say-even if you aren't asked. Don't get caught up in answering questions, but in saying the important things. Some folks just keep repeating their main message.
- Keep it simple. Stay focused. Try to answer the questions directly, but then try to quickly shift the focus to what you want to say. Don't ramble; stick to the sound bite.
- Practice. Get a tape recorder or video camera and use it beforehand. Use your sound bite, tell your story, be yourself, and speak from your heart. (Great youth group exercise!)
Writing op-eds and letters to the editor:
- Spend some time reviewing your paper and getting to know the kinds of stories different reporters cover. Look for the persons who cover peace-related stories, community initiatives, and stories about churches. Learn to know reporters and editors (perhaps the religion desk editor) so they know to call you when specific topics come up. Ask if they'd like to receive news releases from Mennonite Church USA. Give their name and contact information to Cindy Snider, Communications Office Director,
- If you know someone who works for the newspaper (or know someone who knows someone), start with this contact.
- Call your daily paper and ask to speak to the city editor. Tell him/her what kind of story you have and ask whom you should contact. If it's a smaller community paper, there may only be one editor.
- Suggest to the editor that they come take a photo of your witness in action. Remember, photographs attract much more attention from the casual readers of the paper. And if the newspaper invests in the time to take photographs, they are more likely to use your story. (This is perhaps the most important ingredient! Good photos get printed!)
- Think about other sources for information in your community-community organizations, ecumenical groups, and others. If your witness relates to their community services, they may also use your photo in their newsletter and promotion.
- If there are persons in your congregation or community organization who have journalism or public relations experience, ask them to help you with these contacts.
- Don't be afraid to be aggressive with the newspaper people you contact. Remember, part of their task is to serve your community. What you are doing is important. Don't be afraid to say so!
Some guidelines for taking your own photos
- In most major papers, an ad costs $100 a column inch. An eight-inch letter to the editor represents $800 worth of "ad space" that many, many people actually read.
- Be timely and tie your op-ed or letter to something (an editorial, another letter to the editor) in the paper. A letter to the editor should be no longer than a page. An op-ed can run 700-800 words. Don't use footnotes or academic references. Don't worry about your title; the newspaper may not use it anyway. If you do use a headline, keep it brief and relevant to the topic addressed.
- You may choose to use a copy of a letter that MC USA has officially sent to President Bush. If you do so, count up the number of Mennonites in your area and point this out in your letter (if it is to your advantage!). Contact Mennonite congregations within the newspaper readership area and let them know you are sending the letter, so the newspaper doesn't receive multiple copies.
- If you know people with photography experience, ask them to help you.
- Action shots are much more pleasing (and much more likely to be used) than group or mug shots. (This is the most important point!) Do the unexpected that tells your story!
- Photos of the people you will serve, or the volunteers involved, are much more likely to be used than a photograph of a committee or an administrator for a project.
- If you have to take a posed shot of one person or more, the top of heads should touch the top of your camera screen. Have people fill your photo; there is not much need for backgrounds.
- Help people feel comfortable. Check to make sure their clothing, hair, etc. look the way they should; use a flash indoors.
- Some newspapers have a limit on the number of people they want in a photo (say, three). Ask the newspaper for their guidelines before taking the photos. Be sure you have the correct spelling of everyone's name.
- Look for high contrasts between people's skin tones, their clothes and backgrounds. Dark hair and skin fade into paneling; light skin and hair fade into white walls and shirts.
- Watch for odd objects in the background. Wall clocks have a tendency to grow out of heads!
Taking part in marches
The message we bring as peace people is often unwelcome and scary. Quite often, peace people dress in a way that causes others to see them as eccentric with irrelevant views before their message is ever heard. Sometimes we only have a moment to make an impression. Let's consider making it with our words and thoughts rather than our clothes.
- Before going, pray and think about your reasons for participation. There are many reasons: to let your political views be known; to offer an alternative to the status quo position; to join with friends for an exciting day; to encourage your children and your friends to take part; to invite God into the situation; to bring the group before God in constant prayer; to witness to God's desire for peace and love of all.
- After you know your reasons, design your placard or banner. Those passing on the street and the news media will see many; make yours stand out. The lettering should be large enough to be seen easily about ten feet away. Use few words; cars pass by quickly. Laminate or otherwise weatherproof your placard. Think how to carry so your arms don't get too sore. (I'll admit: I HATE making posters. I learned from Jep Hostetler to go to a local print shop, where they will put the lettering on poster board for you, laminate it and attach a stick, all for a reasonable price.)
- Think a bit about your dress: comfortable shoes, warm clothing or sunscreen, waterproof wear are all obvious. (Umbrellas poke your walking companions. Ponchos with hoods are friendly.) What is less obvious, perhaps, is thinking through what people see as they look at the group walking down the street.
If you hope to be interviewed, you might also think about how to look presentable on camera.
During the action
- Prepare something to distribute which explains your position more fully, with an address and phone number where people with your views can be reached. This is a time to tell others that your congregation welcomes those working for peace!
- Media might choose to interview you. Think what questions are most likely to be asked. ("Why are you here?" "What do you hope to accomplish?" "But what should we do now that diplomacy hasn't worked?") What are the main points you want to make, and how can you do that simply and in a few, quotable words?
- It is most fun to prepare with a group! If a number of you go together, you might want to appoint a spokesperson to represent the group through the public address system if one is used. Include children in the march if at all possible. The experience is important for them; they attract media attention; they remind us of innocence and the basic joy of humanity. Make special plans that take into account children's physical stamina and interest in the event.
- Enter with an attitude of prayer. Pray for those around you, those heckling you, those you march for and those you march against. Invite God into your heart and being and into the group around you.
- If you have come from a distance and see media from your area, introduce yourself. They are looking for people from their local area to interview.
- Be willing to offer your reasons for being present when given the opportunity to address the group.
- Talk with your friends, Sunday school class and during congregational sharing time about the experience.
- Write an article about the experience for news media.