Diversity Dimensions: Reaching the black church year-round

Publication Date: 2/2004

Source: SO01 Public Relations Tactics
Product Code: 6C-020440
Organization/Author/Firm: Rochelle L. Ford Ph. D. APR
Specialization(s): Multicultural - Diversity
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In addition to serving as a cultural and spiritual foundation of African-American culture, the black church has played a strong leadership role in communicating social change, economic empowerment, education and holistic health in black communities.

Today, savvy PR professionals work with black churches as an effective vehicle for communicating important issues to African-Americans.

Although many practitioners are responding to President Bush's faith-based initiatives by working with black churches, not every issue is appropriate or welcomed there.

Rev. Unnia Pettus, Ph.D., assistant professor,Bowie State University and associate minister, Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, Md., researched black churches in a 2003 study that was based on James Grunig's situational theory of publics. According to the study, black churches communicate more frequently about issues that directly tie into their immediate communities or that involve racial problems and socioeconomic empowerment issues.

"Issues relating to economic disparity such as access to health care and home ownership, obtaining livable wages, education, police brutality - particularly against African-American males - and racial profiling are more likely to be addressed by the clergy and thus acted upon by the congregation," Pettus says.

Pettus recommends that PR practitioners follow several basic steps" before beginning any outreach with a black church.

1. Consider outreach to the black church as one of many channels to communicate. "Those trying to politically target black churchgoers should no longer consider the black church as a 'one-stop-shop' to reach them," says Pettus, noting that the media and personal experiences are stronger influences. Consistent messages from multiple sources are most effective, she says.

2. Understand the uniqueness of the individual congregation. Pettus says congregations within Catholic, Pentecostal and Methodist churches traditionally follow more closely what the clergy say regarding issues while Baptist congregations tend to be independent and operate through congregational vote on issues.

3. Approach the clergy leader within the congregation to present your issue, project or position. Pettus says that the clergy's pulpit communication still plays an influential role in their congregation's recognition of problems or issues. However, the clergy's talk is more powerful in helping to elevate the importance of an issue. "The study's participants credited sermons with not only elevating their awareness, but also motivating them to action ,"Pettus says.

4. Recognize the role of religious faith. The primary function of the church is worship.Therefore, a tie-in to an individual's faith is important.

5. Provide a direct opportunity to act. If your campaign relates to home ownership, offer workshops at the church. If it is regarding child safety seats, have a child seat inspection at the church.

An example of effectively incorporating black churches into a campaign is Cordy & Company's award winning safety-belt campaign for African-American men for the Colorado Department of Transportation. In addition to media relations, community events and endorsements, Colorado s ministerial alliances participated in a "Testament to Life Sunday" The promotion was held on Father's Day when clergy and parishioners, whose own or loved ones lives were saved because they wore safety belts, spoke during the services about the value of safety belts. Messages were reinforced in church bulletins and surveys were conducted to determine how many parishioners started wearing seat belts.

Rochelle L. Ford, Ph.D., APR is an assistant professor at Howard University. E-mail: rocFord@hoiuard.edu