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Juggling communications is focus of Sarasota conference

By Mary Frances Schjonberg and Matthew Davies
4/24/2006

The focus for the Episcopal Communicators annual conference was"The Art of Juggling Communications," and took place in Sarasota, Florida.   

 
[Episcopal News Service]  The fast-paced world of communication and learning essential new communications skills were the focus of the Episcopal Communicators annual conference, "The Art of Juggling Communications," held April 19-22 in Sarasota, Florida.

The conference schedule included several workshops, plenary sessions and table discussions dedicated to various aspects of Episcopal Church communications, as well as the annual Polly Bond awards, daily worship, devotion and meditation with Chaplain Mary Ann Hoy.

Organizers included Episcopal Communicators president and communications officer for the Diocese of Western New York, Laurie Wozniak, and board member Jim DeLa, director of communications for the host Diocese of Southwest Florida.

Looking ahead to the 75th General Convention, scheduled for June 13-21 in Columbus, Ohio, was also central to the conference's agenda.

Convention issues

Preaching at the opening Eucharist, the Very Rev. George Werner, president of the House of Deputies, encouraged the communicators to listen to the many voices in the church and at General Convention. Bishop John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida presided at the Eucharist and extended a welcome to those present.

Referring to the story from the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter and John stop to talk with and then heal a beggar, Werner noted that the two looked intently at the man whom, he said, many others must have ignored. He urged them and all journalists to come and talk to people in order to hear their stories, rather than coming with a story already written.

Werner said that journalists in the church must strive for balance in a time when many parts of the church feel and act off-balanced. "I meet people every day who know the sins of the people they oppose, but not their own," he said.

During the opening plenary session, Werner outlined four efforts aimed at community building at General Convention, beginning with the Octave of Prayer conceived at a joint meeting of the Councils of Advice for the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. The daily prayer observance will run from Pentecost (June 4) through Trinity Sunday (June 11). More information is available at www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_73340_ENG_HTM.htm.

Bishops and other guests from around the Anglican Communion have been invited to attend General Convention and spend time sitting with deputations in the House of Deputies. "We have a lot of teaching to do," Werner said, and he hopes that this invitation is one way to educate the Communion about the Episcopal Church's polity and how its decisions are made.

In response to a number of suggestions for more time for conversation and dialogue at General Convention, Werner said all deputies and first alternates will be able to have such discussions on June 12 after that day's convention orientation sessions. The deputies and alternates will move to the convention's worship space where they will meet at tables and have time to talk with each other about their hopes and fears and their love of the church. Deputies from the same dioceses will not be seated together because some deputies "do not feel free to express their opinions" within their dioceses, Werner said. Those table assignments will be kept throughout the convention's worship so that deputies have a community of support to come to each day, he said.

Traditionally the House of Deputies has a chaplain at each convention and the 75th General Convention will have a four-member chaplain team to be able to move among the deputies and help and encourage them in whatever ways they need, according to Werner.

The chaplains will be: the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Episcopal chaplain at Syracuse University; the Rev. Canon Dena Harrison, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Texas; the Rev. Matthew Gunter, rector at St. Barnabas' Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois; and the Rev. Silvestre Romero, rector at St. Philip's Church, San
Jose, California.

Disaster response

The Episcopal Church has been called to respond to several disasters over the past few years, from the September 11 terrorist attacks to the 2005 hurricanes.

Neva Rae Fox, director of communications for the Diocese of New York, led a plenary on communications in the midst of disasters. Fox, whose disaster-related experience includes the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the December 2001 fire at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, explained that there are three types of disaster: natural, manmade and terrorist.

After September 11, Fox learned that disaster preparedness is absolutely crucial and offered several recommendations on how Episcopal Communicators can prepare for the worst.

"We are called to communicate accurate information in a timely manner," Fox said. "Without accurate information you lose your credibility and you're not helping anyone."

Developing a response plan and circulating a disaster manual is essential, especially for congregations, she explained, as is providing a protocol for clergy to work as chaplains.

Fox recommended a committee approach that is representative of all areas, people and needs of the diocese, as well as streamlining a process for issuing news and identifying who is authorized to be an official spokesperson.

The internet is an essential tool for sharing information in the midst of a disaster, Fox added, urging communicators to ensure that more than one person is trained in updating their website.

Identify server location and email host, she said, and determine whether they can be accessed from any location. Also ensure that work, clergy and parish emails and contact details are readily available. "Decide now what would be the worst data to lose and back it up," Fox said.

Everyone Fox contacted in a disaster area said that it was a great pickup to speak with people, "but respect that they might not want to chat, especially when they're in survival mode," she said.

"One of the many challenges is being able to tell people what they don't want to hear—the truth, that the damage is bad and that at this point their help is only going to get in the way," Fox explained.

Finally, Fox said, "do know that you'll never be completely prepared [but recognize that] working collaboratively helps everyone and it helps our church."

"In a disaster the first thing that you do is to pray, it also is the second and the third thing," Fox concluded. "Be prayerful and remember that as an Episcopal Communicator you are doing the work that God has called you to do."

Workshops

A series of workshops began April 20 with sessions on the logistics of General Convention news coverage by Bob Williams and other members of the Episcopal Church's Office of Communications, along with John Johnson, domestic policy analyst in the Office of Government Relations, and Richelle Thompson, host communicator from the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

Concurrently, Susan Elliot of St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and Anne Van Dusen, senior research associate at the Alban Institute, ran a workshop on "Keeping It Together in the Parish." The afternoon ended with an informal discussion on emerging technologies.

The April 21 workshops included "The Art of the Interview" with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based  school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists; an advertising panel discussion with Richelle Thompson, Michael Collins of the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, and the Rev. Skip Schueddig of the Episcopal Media Center in Atlanta; "Publication Transformation: Newspaper to Magazine" with Peggy VanAntwerp Hill of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina; "Web Redesign: Look & Content" with Bowie Snodgrass from the Episcopal Church Center; "Same Story, Different Year" with Kelly McBride; "Using Negative Space" with Lauren Auttonberry of the Diocese of Mississippi; "Journalism vs. Public Relations Roundtable" and "Web Redesign: Joomla! Content Management System" with Stephen Gracey of the Diocese of Ohio.

Telling the Truth

Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists, opened Friday's sessions with a talk titled "The Truth vs. the truth: What's the Difference and Who Cares Anyway."

"You need a strategy to tell the truth," she said. "You need a strategy to be inclusive."

McBride suggested that reporters assigned to cover contentious stories need to begin by listening to the many voices of the story and hear the many nuanced opinions. Then reporters need to commit to finding ways to get those opinions into the breadth of their coverage and to write the stories that will give readers the history, context and process background they need. Not to do so is "journalistic malpractice," she said.

"Your goal is to articulate a truth" that is relevant to the people you are trying to reach, McBride said, adding that "if you believe in truth-telling" you need to find a way to help your audience be alert to the efforts of people who try to obscure the facts and spin their take on an issue.

Using the debate over whether to disconnect Terry Schiavo's feeding tube as an example, McBride warned that there are times "when there will be no good answers" to questions that people—reporters included— want resolved.

"Where that is the case, you have to be willing to let ambiguity exist," she said.

Reporters need to "go down the ladder of abstraction" to things that can be said that no one will argue with, McBride suggested. Doing so, she said, will help people understand the issue in a way that lets truth emerge and makes it harder for lies and spin to survive.

Interviewing techniques

In the workshop on the art of interviewing, McBride used examples from the 2004 Kerry/Edwards election campaign and Katie Couric of NBC’s Today show to illustrate some of the good and bad questions that can be asked during an interview.

Good questions begin with “why,” “how” or “what,” are open ended and genuine, McBride explained, whereas questions beginning with words such as “will,” “is,” or “are,” force the interviewee to give one- word answers.

"In legislative processes, we tend to narrow people down to yes or no," she said. "Most people appreciate nuance and shades of grey rather than black and white."

Never interrupt, McBride insisted, "as you'll never allow your interviewee to arrive at a cogent thought."

Allowing time for the interview to breathe is an important tool for drawing the best from your subject, she added. "Silence is your friend —don't step on it."

Creating dialogue and understanding depends on a structured conversation, McBride said, offering five key areas that should be considered in any interview:

  • establish the person's place in an issue
  • explore how the interviewee came to this position
  • raise doubts
  • ask the interviewee what questions they would have for others
  • determine what the subject has learned and ask about regrets

McBride also recommended that for every question, the interviewer should ask five follow-up questions to encourage the subject to elaborate.

"Dialogue is not about changing points of view, but rather to create an opportunity for people to listen to one another and respect one another's views," McBride said. "I really think that is the goal of journalism—to create a communal understanding between people and help your audience understand."

Another Poynter Institute specialist, Larry Larsen, gave a talk on "Media Convergence--Distance Presence with Portable Tools" that focused on creating and maintaining websites or weblogs, more commonly referred to as "blogs."

He explained the need for keeping web content fresh and offered some useful advice for creating and uploading digital photos, video and podcasts—audio files, most commonly in MP3 format, that are made available online.

From newspaper to magazine

Peggy VanAntwerp Hill, canon for communications in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, discussed why dioceses and parishes might want to transform their publications from newspapers to magazines.

Her diocese changed from a 10-issues-per-year newspaper to a quarterly magazine three years ago. In making the switch, the diocese recognized the need to improve its publication's content and design. Hill said the committee proposing the change saw a need to educate people about how the Episcopal Church runs and to give readers "tools for maturing as a Christian."

The committee also wanted to make the publication more memorable and more inclusive of the diocese's voices, and it saw the switch as an evangelism tool. "We look at this as a publication that you might want to give out to your friends or leave at the doctor's office," she said.

Hill said the diocese wanted to become more visible in an increasingly crowded marketplace of information. The design is aimed at "just trying to make it more engaging when it comes out of your mailbox," she said.

The new magazine needed to overcome the natural resistance to change, deal with the potential change in cost and find ways to get more immediate news out to the diocese through the diocese's website and through parish bulletin inserts. Hill said the committee tried to show its constituents how the change would be good for them. The committee made the change without additional cost and gave technical advice to groups who were encouraged to start electronic newsletters as a way to make sure their events and voices could be available between magazine issues.

Valuing Communion

Continuing its commitment to inviting international visitors, the conference welcomed Sam Carriere, director of communications and information resources for the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), as a guest luncheon speaker.

A former reporter at the Toronto Globe and Mail, Carriere highlighted some of the differences and commonalities between the Episcopal Church and the ACC, explaining that both share diversity and both have, for example, opposed war in Iraq and taken strong stands on environmental issues.

Carriere explained that the Episcopal Church is much larger than the ACC, but they share in a common ethic, are liberal in social ministry, advocacy and theology, and both celebrate the ministry of women.

They also "share in the liberal standing that has resulted in the ordination of a gay bishop [in New Hampshire]" and developing rites for blessing same-sex unions in New Westminster, Canada, he said, acknowledging the challenges these decisions have caused throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion.

"Our ministry as communicators casts us in the role of storytellers," he said. "The big international stories cannot be ignored ... but nor must you ignore the stories at the parish level where the church's existence begins. I think that is the church that matters."