Small companies and organizations don’t have the budgets or the know-how to play the total PR game. These days, you don’t have to. You can play on the cheap. And sometimes, you need to.

Here’s a textbook example that hits close to home for me. I attend a Church of Christ, and actually have come back to the church after an overly-long hiatus. There are a couple of things you need to know about churches of Christ, should you encounter them:

  1. There is no national or regional structure.
  2. They are independent and self-governing and the congregational level.
  3. They are like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: you can’t be sure what you’re going to get until you open one up.

That’s an important bit of background you need to be able to understand the problems with the following broadcast on CNN’s Nancy Grace.

The topic was the Tennessee minister murder. Very tragic, still quite mysterious, and a lot of attention because of the religion angle. Nancy Grace, being the hard-hitting investigator that she is, decided to bring in an “expert” to help explain the mindset of this minister’s family. Who does she get? A Southern Baptist minister (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

GRACE: I want to go to pastor Tom Rukala, joining us tonight, a special guest, a Baptist minister. I’ve been researching the Church of Christ. I don`t know that much about it. What can you tell me?

PASTOR TOM RUKALA, BAPTIST PASTOR: Well, the Church of Christ is a relatively new church. It was started about 150 years ago by Alexander Campbell (ph). And it’s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure tactics. They claim that they are the only ones going to heaven, and all other people are condemned to hell. So in case…

GRACE: Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. But I already knew that.


GRACE: Now, wait a minute. What more can you tell me?

RUKALA: Well, they claim that if you`re not baptized by one of their ministers, that you`re doomed to hell, even if you`re a believer in Jesus Christ, which, of course, breaks completely from the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because we`re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. For the Church of Christ folks, that`s not enough. You have to be a member of their narrow sect. It`s a very exclusive group. And if you`re not a member of their sect, you`re condemned.

GRACE: You know, Pastor, you keep saying “sect.” “Sect.” You make it sound like a cult.

RUKALA: It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately. I don`t want to make it out to be some kind of Hare Krishna group, but it has cult-like characteristics and…

GRACE: In what sense?

RUKALA: Well, in the sense of the exclusivism, the attitude that they are the only ones who know the truth. The tactics that they use are sometimes just — not only un-biblical but unethical, and they can be very ungracious, unfortunately.

Wow. A pretty damning pronouncement about a movement that doesn’t even have an organization to defend itself.

I’m a former journalist, and I’m pretty sure I know what happened. Some low-level producer tried the rolodex looking for a high-level Church of Christ contact. Since there is no organizational structure, the producer got desperate and went for the first person with a pulpit robe.

Shoddy journalism aside, this is the sort of thing that can be a real problem for these congragations (and any other group too small or too unorganized to fight back). Yes, the murder brings negative and unwanted attention, but things happen to any group or company. But in this instance, there has traditionally been no one to step up and tell the truth, and steer the dialogue. I say “traditionally” because the internet and free blogging has given many small voices a larger reach. Individual congregations no longer have to stay small and eat their lumps in the media. Many are in the process of writing rebuttals and correcting the mistakes made in this report. It may take a couple of days to propgate, but eventually those who Google this tragedy will get a more balanced picture than Nancy Grace provided.

In the internet age, the management of your reputation is your job, and no one else’s. If you can afford to delegate it, then do so. If not, pick up your tools and get to work.

Update: 20 years ago, this sort of thing would have been met with useless hand-wringing. Now, others are sounding off:

Update #2: Here’s the transcript to the follow-up segment, where Grace utterly fails to clear up anything.

More blogosphere reaction…

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