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Speaking to the Media as a Unitarian Universalist

Peter Montgomery
June 2000

Quick—without stopping to think—answer this question, speaking out loud: what is a Unitarian Universalist (UU)?

Say it out loud: A Unitarian Universalist is...

Did you know where to start? How long did it take you to finish? Would someone who has no understanding of Unitarian Universalism have glazed over before they heard what you had to say? Would you give the impression of someone knowledgeable about and grounded in your faith?

The first rule of effective advocacy is to have a clear message. Establishing yourself as a UU voice in the community, either as an individual or as a spokesperson for your congregation, means being able to communicate clearly who and what we are. And even if you're a lifelong UU, having some short, direct answers to questions like that might take a little preparation.

Being an effective Unitarian Universalist media advocate means applying some basic principles of media work—don't worry, it's not rocket science—with a clear UU message. Let's look at message first, then mechanics.

Message

Who are we?

You'll probably be more comfortable working with the media if you spend some time developing your own description of UUism and your own responses to questions. You'll sound more convincing if you're using your own words rather than memorizing and quoting the seven principles. (Besides, that's way too long for a soundbite!) Start by thinking about how you might describe UUism to a friend or work colleague. But remember that if you're talking to a reporter, what you say may end up in print or on the air.

Back to that first question: what is a Unitarian Universalist, or what is Unitarian Universalism? Of course, there is no simple answer to the question. In fact, that might be a good starting point for a conversation, because the difficulty in describing us reflects a fundamental part of our theology. We have no common creed, and do not require adherence to a set of religious beliefs.

That'll throw many reporters off right away. How can you have a religion without a creed? How can you worship? Can people believe anything they want? It's likely that you've already heard all these questions from family and friends—maybe asked them yourself the first time you became acquainted with Unitarian Universalism.

Come up with a few very short, very simple definitions for those times when the reporter will only give you a few words on a page or a few seconds in a broadcast clip (that will be most of the time). And, of course, have some more in-depth answers for interviews, radio shows, and public forums, where you will have more time for discussion.

Here are a few possible examples of the short-short response that you might start with:

  • Unitarian Universalism is grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and in the free and responsible search for meaning.
     
  • Unitarian Universalists have no creed—we believe the spiritual search is an important and individual process.
     
  • Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith with a strong social justice tradition.
     
  • Unitarian Universalists seek to help each other live meaningful, ethical lives.

You get the idea. If none of those sound quite right to you, come up with a couple of your own.

It's a good idea to be able to give a short description of your congregation as well. And you probably don't want to rely too heavily on the U and U words, since they're a mystery to so many people.

The UUA has chosen the first principle as the tagline for its website: "affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person." That might be enough for you, or your congregation may already have a one-sentence description that you use in your order of service or on membership materials, something like: "First UU Fellowship is a caring congregation where all are welcome to seek answers to life's questions and to work for justice in our community." It's good to have a one or two sentence tag line that you can use on all your press releases and other promotional materials.

What are we doing?

Presumably you or your congregation are doing something that you want to call to reporters' attention. When you're dealing with the media, keep in mind that one of the first questions reporters will ask themselves is, "Is it news?" Generally speaking, saying something isn't nearly as newsworthy as doing something. If the speaker is very well known, or the thing being said is especially provocative, that might be enough to get a reporter interested. And of course it may be easier to get media attention in a smaller town than in Manhattan where there's a lot more competition. But generally you won't find a reporter leaping to cover a story about a congregation passing a resolution on topic X.

A friend of mine who is the communications director of a nonprofit organization frequently urges his coworkers to think about the verbs that an activity offers a reporter, and to come up with something beyond "said" or "released a statement" or "published." Another friend, a former TV reporter, is constantly reminding activists that TV means teleVISION—and you're not likely to get onto teleVISION if you don't provide some good visual elements to your message. In other words, give ‘em a pretty picture.

There are ways big and small to turn saying into doing. If your congregation wants to weigh in on a controversy in the community, don't just pass a resolution, write a letter to the mayor and send a copy to the newspaper. Better yet, organize a small group of like-minded religious community leaders to pay a visit to the mayor and invite the press along. Invite a well-known speaker from outside the community to address a public forum on the topic, and have that person call on the mayor to take some specific action.

Think of the verbs. Is there ongoing activism? If your church or a group of leaders are launching a campaign, that's better than going to complain. If you can say that people will be handing out flyers outside city hall at lunchtime every Friday, or collecting signatures on a petition every day, until the issue is resolved, you've created all kinds of action, and some visuals, to reporters.

Of course, there are different types of reporters looking for different kinds of stories. If you're doing political advocacy, you'll be dealing with news reporters. But religion writers and lifestyle sections are also looking for interesting things to write about or put on the air.

Think about things you're already doing that might make a good story. One example might be the flower communion that many congregations do every year. For reporters who know anything about religion, the name is already kind of intriguing, since it's obviously something very different from the traditional Christian communion. It can provide great visuals. At its core there's a great story about courage and conviction and fighting oppression. And there's a genuine UU hero in Norbert Capek. Think about inviting a local religion reporter or style section writer the next time you do a flower communion service. You might even make it more interesting by scheduling it around a Holocaust remembrance and inviting members of a local synagogue to take part.

How does what we're doing relate to who we are?

This is an important part of getting your message across specifically as a UU advocate. To get a UU message out, you must ground the story you are telling with and about your actions in the congregation's identity and in the UU faith tradition.

For example, there are people of many faiths working to promote women's rights and to protect a woman's right to choose safe and legal abortion. If your social justice action committee is involved in clinic defense work, what makes them different from Planned Parenthood? How do you talk about your work in a way that makes it not only a political act, but an act of faith, and specifically an act of Unitarian Universalist faith?

This will be a lot easier to do if you're familiar not only with the principles and sources of our faith, but with our history. Is this work grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, applied to women being the ultimate moral decisionmakers regarding their own life, health, and conscience? Does it draw on the example of remarkable Universalist and Unitarian women, and on the history of Universalists and Unitarians in supporting women's equality and women's leadership?

Is your work on behalf of an anti-discrimination ordinance for gays and lesbians just a question of constitutional rights? Or is it also grounded in a moral principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being? What did the UU General Assembly say when it first passed its resolutions supporting equality for lesbians and gay men? What is a UU response to opponents citing the Bible as the authority for anti-gay public policy? How does it relate to the UU approach to drawing on other faith traditions? (While we're at it, can you briefly describe the origins of the two Us in two different heresies from Christianity?)

Civil rights work is grounded in our first principle and reflected in our history, from the abolitionists to the present day, and is carried out with the memory of UU martyr James Reeb, who was killed at Selma. Respect for and protection of the environmental protection draws from our understanding of the interdependence of life on our planet, follows the example of Henry David Thoreau, and is informed by earth–centered spiritual traditions. You get the picture.

We can be effective advocates—as UU advocates—if we can make it clear that what we are doing flows from who we are.

Mechanics

There are many sources of information about the "how-to's" of media work, some of which are listed at the end of this document. But here are some fundamentals.

Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are one of the simplest and most effective tools for getting your word out. Surveys consistently show that they are among the most-read parts of any newspaper. Many editors are happy to print provocative letters, because interesting ongoing debates draw people back to the paper.

There aren't too many tricks to a good letter. Keep it relatively short (some newspapers will tell you up front that they have a specific limit of, say, 300 words). Make your point quickly. And if you are writing to challenge the viewpoint of an article or of another letter, just say so directly at the start of your letter: "Your March 1 editorial on campaign finance reform missed the big picture." "Bob Jones' letter on the state hate crimes bill distorted the facts."

Some papers have limits on how often the same person can have a letter published, so make this a good group project for the congregation, a public relations committee, or a social justice committee.

Feel free to make your point with a little zing, but after you've crafted the perfect sarcastic barb for that self-righteous idiot in your community, think about how happy you'll be to have that read by everyone who sees the paper. And think about the spirit that you convey to folks who don't know your our your church. Sometimes the Religious Right is its own worst enemy, because their lack of Christian spirit alienates many people who might otherwise hear their message. You don't want to be a tUUrn off.

In the short length of a letter to the editor, once you've made your main point, you aren't likely to have much space to get into UU theology or history. But you can get a message across by including language, like "inherent worth and dignity" without citing it as one of the UU Principles. And when you sign the letter you can identify yourself as a member of First UU Fellowship, or its board or social action task force.

Press Releases and Media Advisories

Press releases are often the first step in telling your story to reporters. One excellent guideline is to write your press release as if it were itself the news story you hope the reporter will write. That means using a straightforward style with the main point you want to get across in the first paragraph. Use a quote from your minister or spokesperson toward the front, usually in the second paragraph. And then work your way through the information you want to convey. Once you've given the most important facts, you can use other quotes to bring in UU theology and history to undergird the activity you're promoting.

If you are trying to get reporters to a news conference or other event, don't give them everything up front. They may decide that they can write the story from your release and so don't need to show up. A good way to prevent that is to send out a media advisory, which is typically a just-the-facts memo that tells reporters when and where an event is happening, who the speakers are, and what other action will take place. Then, at the event itself, you can hand out a longer press release that frames the message of the event.

One great benefit of the Internet is that you can read countless examples of press releases by visiting the websites of advocacy organizations. Nearly all of them have news pages listing months worth of press releases. Visiting a few sites and reading through releases will give you a feel for the general framework and for different styles.

Working with Journalists

Don't make the mistake of thinking that you've done your job if you have mailed or faxed a press release to reporters—that's just the beginning. If you are going to be an effective advocate, you need to develop an ongoing professional relationship with the reporters in your area, or the reporters that cover the issues that you're working on. You need to follow up written communications with phone calls.

Here are a few guidelines for working with journalists:

  • Don't be intimidated, and don't give up if one of them sounds rude or uninterested on your first phone call. She may be on deadline and too busy to talk, or he may not be the right reporter for the topic you're talking about. It's OK to ask if there's someone else at the paper or the station who covers that issue.
     
  • Develop relationships by becoming a good source of information. Reporters need stories. So if you are a source of story ideas or the information that helps them put stories together, they will be happy to talk to you, and they will start calling you. Familiarize yourself with a reporter's work – what he writes about, from what kind of angle he seems to approach stories—and then pass along information that might be helpful.
     
  • Have reasonable expectations. Sometimes our events don't get covered. Sometimes reporters disagree with us about whether our statement is newsworthy. Don't let one setback stop you. But also don't take out your anger on the reporter or news producer if you want to work with them in the future. It is OK to call a producer or reporter, for example, and politely ask why he or she didn't think an event was newsworthy. You'll get better results if you don't ask accusingly but with an ear toward learning what interests them.
     
  • Remember your roles—yours and the reporters. Once you've developed a comfortable relationship with a reporter you might have a tendency to let your guard down. The reporter may be friendly, but be cautious about talking to her as a friend if you're asked what you "really think" about something or someone. The juicy quote that spices up a reporter's story might ruin your day, or worse, when you see it in print.
     
  • Be patient with ignorance and errors. Many reporters know little about religion. And even fewer know anything about Unitarian Universalism. So sometimes, even in spite of your brilliant explanations, mistakes will be made. If a news story refers to your church as a liberal Christian church, or lumps you in with some term like "Protestant", don't get angry. Consider mistakes like that as great opportunities for further education. A private letter to the reporter and a letter to the editor if you want to correct the error publicly, should start with a positive note if there is anything at all positive to say about the coverage. "Thanks for the moving story on this week's Interfaith Call to Justice service. Members of First UU Fellowship were glad to take part in the service, but we were incorrectly identified in your story as a liberal Christian church. Unitarian Universalism has roots in Judaism and Christianity but we do not have a creed. While some members of our congregation may consider themselves liberal Christians, others are humanists, Buddhists, and questioners. We come together to support each other in our daily lives, our spiritual search and our work for justice." That kind of correction in a letter to the editor might draw some visitors who have never heard of a church like that.

Practice

If you're going to speak at a public forum, unless you're very experienced and polished, it's not a good idea to wing it. Prepare your remarks and practice them out loud. Speaking them out loud will help you identify long sentences or difficult words that you can gloss over when reading silently but which might make you stumble in front of the microphone. And it will make your delivery much smoother. Look for words to emphasize, to create some energy and rhythm to your remarks. Have a friend listen and offer suggestions.

If you are preparing for an interview, sit down with friends and colleagues and brainstorm the kinds of questions you might be asked. Try to think specifically about the hardest questions you might get asked and how you would answer them. Role-play your questions and answers until you feel comfortable.

If you are getting ready to go on television, it's a great idea to videotape your practice sessions. Watch yourself - no matter how excruciating it might seem. You will notice how dramatically different you appear on television when you are smiling rather than trying to appear too serious (if of course it's appropriate given the topic of your interview). Try to practice speaking while leaning forward, with exaggerated energy, facial, and hand expressions, and then watch yourself on tape. Odds are that what feels odd when you're doing it will come across on television as more lively and interesting.

Resources

Unitarian Universalism

Our Hymnal is a wonderful resource. It is a concrete way to show people the range of traditions from which our faith draws. Start with the principles and sources. And when a reporter asks you, "so you can believe anything," pull out reading number 657, "It Matters What We Believe." It doesn't point to an easily quotable creed, but it might help them get the idea.

The Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) website is a treasure trove of information on UU history and theology. It links to biographies of famous UUs from many walks of life, to affiliated organizations, and to individual congregations' websites.

The UUA bookstore is available online and also published a printed catalogue from which you will probably have a hard time narrowing your choices.

Media Advocacy

As I mentioned before, the Internet is a great tool for learning by example. Visit sites of religious organizations, advocacy organizations, and individual congregations to see what they are doing.

Also online you can find several bibliographies of how-to books. Here are a couple of them:

Cause Communications: Media How-To books

The Citizen's Library: Books on Publicity & Media Advocacy

For more information contact uuawo @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.

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