Task force seeks to delineate news, public relations functions

July 16, 2009

LOUISVILLE

What exactly does it mean for the Presbyterian News Service to have “editorial freedom?”

Who is responsible for public relations for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and how well is that being done? When controversy burbles up — as it inevitably will from time to time — how can the institutional church get its message out effectively to the secular media and to the world at large?

And the questions don’t stop there. Where should the funding for the Presbyterian News Service come from — the mission budget or per capita? It’s currently funded by undesignated mission giving, already a stressed source of funding. When budget cuts have to be made, how should funding for the news service be weighed against other ministries and needs of the church?

A task force considering the future of the Presbyterian News Service continues to wrestle with these questions, preparing to make a recommendation to the General Assembly Mission Council in September.

The question does not seem to be whether the news service should continue to exist.

“There seems to be some kind of misconception that we are trying to do away with the Presbyterian News Service,” which is not  true, said task force member Carolyn McLarnan, a General Assembly Mission Council member from Mississippi, during a task force conference call July 7.
But there is considerable discussion about balancing independence with responsibility and accountability, and about whether the lines between public relations and news accounts in the church are clear enough or improperly blurred.

“For me personally, news and public relations are separate functions,” McLarnan said. “I don’t envision Presbyterian News Service becoming a PR function. I would like it to remain as an independent news source.”

Judy Fletcher, a task force member who also is executive of the Synod of the Sun, said she’s also heard “loud and clear” the desire by many that the denomination have some kind of press secretary or clear public relations voice, “but to have that as a separate function, not combined” with Presbyterian News Service.

That’s one of the areas where things get messy. For example, the Presbyterian News Service Web site contains some stories written by its own small staff or by freelancers it hires.

But increasingly, ministry divisions of the General Assembly Mission Council or the Office of the General Assembly have hired their own communications representatives to get their message out, and the news service runs pieces written by them as well. Sometimes, the communications staff gives early information to the news service so the news service can get its story out before the secular media does.

Recently, a separate section was created on the news service Web site for press releases. But what distinguishes a “press release” from a “news story” written by a communications staff member is not always clear, particularly when the news stories are trying to emphasize certain initiatives of the denomination, such as a series of pieces on the “Growing the Church Deep and Wide” effort.

In short, the lines are sometimes blurry.

Nor is it clear — that’s one of the things the task force is considering — where the church wants those lines to be drawn. A review of the practices of other denominations shows a variety of approaches, and other faith groups wrestling with some of the same questions.

Task force member John Bolt, for more than 20 years a journalist and now stated clerk of the Presbytery of West Virginia, described that in part as “the search for an institutional voice.”

And “with freedom comes responsibility,” said Karen Schmidt, the General Assembly Mission Council’s deputy executive director for communications and funds development. Some ideas under discussion: to revise the editorial guidelines under which the news service operates, and to create an editorial review board to monitor the work of the Presbyterian News Service.

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