Elizabeth Potito Capstone Story

Joining the 21st Century: Steps to Creating a Parish Communication Plan
Elizabeth Ann Potito
© 2016 Potito Productions

How does one small country parish combine with two others, close the church buildings, move to temporary worship space in the school gym/auditorium, go through three pastors in as many years, and still survive? Dedicated parishioners, of course, some great leadership, and improving communication.

Improving communication can be the hardest of these to achieve. People hold on to past patterns, change can be hard, and once people feel that their personal fiefdom is threatened, cooperation can become elusive. How do you clear these barriers? Telling people they have nothing to worry about is not enough. Showing them is more productive. And the best way to show them is to include them in the planning and implementation of any new communication initiative.

Nowadays, improving communication means a lot more than just making sure the parish address list is kept updated. And while announcing events in the bulletin is a great move, let’s face it: most bulletins either never leave the church, or become part of the litter in the back seat of the car. Even the people who bring the bulletin home and read it are still not going to memorize it. So they miss the meeting, or the dance, or the collection – “Oh, was that today?” How do we communicate with them so that the information is and remains available? We no longer have housewives chatting over coffee, we have over-extended and over-booked parents and children struggling to keep up with a schedule that can include three different school bus pick up times and two parents trying to figure out how to get to work on time when the five year old’s school is on a two hour snow delay. They are not stopping to read the bulletin! We need to catch them on the fly. We need to go to where they are: not staying home waiting for the mail, but on their devices.

So, the parish needs a website. And you need someone who is both computer savvy and has time to devote to the website. But even the best website in the world is dependent on content. If the webmaster is not approachable; if only those in a particular clique know who to funnel information to, the website won’t have everything. And the website alone is not enough, anyway: the website needs a way to drive traffic to it. So the first line of “advertising,” if you will, is to reach the people where they already go. A 21st Century way to drive website traffic is using Social Media. For the adults, that largely means Facebook. For the teens, that may mean Twitter, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or something that just came out last week. But let’s start with Facebook: it’s easy to learn, it’s user friendly, it’s accessible.

You’ll need some dedicated volunteers to get this really up and running. The parish itself and every parish group and organization might have their own Facebook presence. A parish website would need the parish page, and then pages for the Ladies Guild, the Men’s Club, the High School Youth Group, the Confirmation Formation Class, the Young Adult group, the Book Club, the Grammar School Religion Ed, the Adult Faith Formation, the Social Activities Group – depending on the parish, this list may be longer or shorter. Each group does not need to post something every day (once a week would be enough), but each group needs to “follow” all the other groups, and each group needs to cross-post each other’s activities. And of course, some things that get posted, like an announcement of a Dinner Dance, would also be appropriate to be posted to the parish Facebook page, and also to the parish website.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But remember, each group has its own person responsible for posting content. Posting content is easier (and cheaper) than designing, printing, and distributing flyers. It’s more environmentally friendly, too.

Remember, too, that while the overall audience is the entire parish, each page is aimed at a different audience. Those in the Young Adult Group aren’t likely to care about the Grammar School Religious Ed announcements. Adults in the Social Activities may take time to read a long text post; the teens in the High School Youth Group are more likely to pay attention to short bursts of text accompanied by a visual, be it a drawing, a picture, or just a more eye-catching format than simple words. Each page should have its own feel geared to its own main audience.

The hardest part of this is getting everyone on board. I suggest starting with the Pastor, of course. Once he has approved, you should meet with the Parish Council. Don’t make the mistake I made: I moved forward based on the Pastor’s approval, only to be met with dismay from the Parish Council, who were independently forming their own committee. Not content with simply approving what the pastor had already approved, they put the project on hold while they formed a committee to report to the Council on how we could better our communication.

Here are some tips for how to put together a successful proposal:

DO

  • Get the Pastor’s prior approval
  • Get Parish Council on board
  • Involve the webmaster. When social media cross links with a web page, there can be security concerns, so ask your webmaster or tech team to clearly explain how to manage this risk.
  • Include those who administer any existing Facebook pages
  • Research what groups have no internet presence
  • Consider using an aggregator such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to cross-post between FacebookTwitter, and other sites.
  • Develop realistic posting expectations
  • Teach digital citizenship skills to all involved and offer ongoing training if needed

DON’T

  • Expect everyone to jump on board – change is scary
  • Make a quick move away from standard written communication. Keep a blended approach.
  • Try to do everything all at once
  • Be afraid to ask others for help

Project Goals and Implementation:

The project will seem less daunting when you break it down into steps. A Phase I/Phase II approach is a good way to approach this. In Phase I, there is a gentle nudge into an online mindset; in Phase II, more programs are added and the benefits will begin to be evident. By the end of Phase II, you are in a position to be a flourishing community, both online and off!

A suggested step by step proposal is below. Feel free to use this as a guideline. But remember, every parish is different, and what is designed for and works in one parish will not necessarily succeed in another:

Phase I/Short Term:

  • Explain to the pastor and Pastoral Council what a parish social media/communications strategy includes. Refer to best practices and show visual examples to drive home your point.
  • Utilize your existing parish web site and Facebook page; improve your presence by increased postings to and use of those sites.
  • Add additional electronic programs to further your presence. In Phase I, add Twitter and Instagram.
  • Utilize Wikis for adult faith formation programs. There are a variety of platforms you can choose from; I like Wix.
  • Utilize Remind or similar programs for various parish groups, including each specific grade in Religious Education.

Implementation of Phase I

  • Develop a written Internet/Social Media Policy for the Parish. While the Parish Internet/Social Media Policy is being refined, the guidelines will be the Internet/Social Media Policies set forth by the USCCB and the Diocese of ___ from time to time.
  • Have each parish group, (for example, Ladies Guild, K of C, youth religious education, adult religious education) designate a contact person who will routinely provide information regarding upcoming events so that they can be placed on the various social media.
  • Assist each contact person in developing information designed for each media. For example, a version of the usual paper flyer for an upcoming bake sale can be put on Facebook; a photo of it can be posted on Instagram, and an announcement can be tweeted. On the day of the event, further promotions can be tweeted, and photos of the goodies on Facebook and Instagram are a great selling point.
  • Invite the parish into the conversation! Announce each new account in the bulletin, and put links to each site on the parish website.
  • Cooperate with other parishes in the Deanery to cross-promote events of interest in each other’s parishes.

Phase II/Long Term:

  • Consider having a Video presence on line, such as a YouTube channel, or by using Join Me, meetings and even homilies can be recorded and posted.
  • Consider purchasing a parish membership to Formed.Org so that parishioners have a one-stop online source of books, movies and videos with Catholic content. (This currently costs $1,680 per year per parish. Depending on your parish budget, this may be very affordable, or it may be quite costly. The number of parishioners likely to utilize the membership is one consideration, as is the ability to use it for Faith Formation Programs.)
  • Introduce use of computer technology to the Religious Education program, by training teachers in the use of programs such as Formed.OrgAnimoto, and Imgur. Availability of wi-fi and computers would need to be taken into consideration. In my parish, we would need to either have to access the Catholic School’s wi-fi network or overlay a separate one for general parish use, and Religious Ed teachers would need to supply their own laptops. This may not be possible in every parish and every setting.
  • Introduce or expand the use of an aggregator, as discussed above, to automatically share content between sites.
  • Use an online program to schedule Altar Servers, Readers, Extraordinary Ministers, Ushers, Greeters and other liturgical ministers. A program for this may already be included in your parish software, or you may use Ministry Scheduler (you’ll need to purchase a subscription). Giving people the ability to schedule themselves both increases participation, and helps cut down on “no-shows.”
  • Continue to research and add websites and programs to your offerings so as not to become stagnant.

Implementation of Phase II

To grow further from Phase I, you will need to develop a structured framework for management of internet use. This will be the cornerstone of implementing the remainder of Phase II.

At this stage, you now have a webmaster, and also Content Managers as described in Phase I. While it is a good thing to have all these people involved, there must be a single point of contact. As the project develops, the parish will ultimately need to have a designated Social Media Manager.

The Social Media Manager’s job description:

  • Administer the Parish Social Media Policy, including suggesting updates from time to time
  • Provide a single contact for any individual or group who wants something posted
  • Coordinate with the Content Managers to oversee the continuity of the sites.
  • Ensure that each Site complies with the guidelines set forth by the Parish.
  • Ensure that the daily readings are posted each day on the applicable Parish Accounts.
  • Develop a timetable for content to be delivered for scheduled events. (For example, the Ladies Guild luncheon and bag sale held in September should begin to be promoted by late May.)

The Social Media Manager’s job is NOT to replace or interfere with the Webmaster or Content Manager. However, the Social Media Manager may also be designated as the Content Manager for one or more accounts.

Each individual Social Media account should have a Content Manager.

The Content Manager is the direct contact for each site, and is responsible to the day-to-day management of the site, as set forth in the Responsibilities chart on the next page.

Costs for Accounts

All these accounts are presently free, unless otherwise noted. Your own parish resources and budget will be a deciding factor in many decisions. However, keep in mind that switching to electronic communications does save on printing and mailing costs. You may also need to add or increase your WiFi availability.

Costs for Social Media Manager

  • It is strongly suggested that the Social Media Manager be a parish staff position. Depending on the parish size, needs, and budgets, it could be a part-time position, at least initially. That person could be the professional in touch with best practices, the person who attends professional workshops on Church and technology issues, and who advises the pastoral council and pastor on needs and initiatives in the parish.
  • Pastors and Parish Councils are encouraged to take into consideration how much of the parish work is or moves to being an online experience and to consider reallocating assets accordingly.
  • In another dozen years, it may well be that the position of Social Media Manager be commonly considered just one part of the functions of a parish Family Faith Coordinator. However, at the present time, it would be an unusual candidate who had the skill set and knowledge for both positions.

Miscellaneous

  • It is anticipated that in most parishes, the various Content Managers and Facilitators will be volunteer position.
  • If the parish joins Formed, you would need to aggressively promote the availability of their programs.

Roles and Responsibilities

Here is a suggestion for roles and responsibilities:

Account Content Manager Responsibilities
Website The same tasks and description as the current Webmaster. As other Social Media Accounts “go live,” links to them should be added to the Website.
Facebook The Content Manager will oversee the parish Facebook account; post updates as requested by Social Media Manager, Pastor or other responsible person, respond to questions or comments; delete inappropriate questions or comments; and “block” others as necessary
Twitter The Content Manager will oversee the parish Twitter account; post updates as requested by Social Media Manager, Pastor or other responsible person; “follow” other accounts of interest (e.g., Pope, USCCB, Bishop _, Father _, other priests of the Diocese, and other accounts of interest.) The Pastor or his designee has the ultimate authority as to what accounts may be followed.

The Pastor, Assistant Pastor, and all Deacons are encouraged to open their own Twitter accounts, which will of course be followed by the Parish account.

Instagram The Content Manager will oversee the parish Twitter account; post updates as requested by Social Media Manager, Pastor or other responsible person; “follow” other accounts of interest (e.g., Pope, USCCB, Bishop _, Father _, other priests of the Diocese, and other accounts of interest.) The Pastor or his designee has the ultimate authority as to what accounts may be followed.
Wiki(s) Each separate Adult Faith Formation program may set up its own Wiki. The Facilitator of each individual program should be the Content Manager for that Wiki. At the discretion of the Pastor or his designee, Wikis may be set up as open to all in the parish, or open only to participants in that particular program.

The Content Manager will oversee the main Wiki account; post the initial entry for each class meeting; post other updates as necessary or as requested by Social Media Manager, Pastor or other responsible person, respond to questions or comments; delete inappropriate questions or comments

Other Other Social Media activities to be added as new platforms become viable.
Remind This will not have a single Content Manager for all Remind accounts. Rather, each group or grade utilizing it would have a separate Remind account and thus a separate Content Manager. Each group or grade would have its own designated Content Manager would responsible for timely sending out announcements as needed for their particular group.
Blogs The Content Manager will copy the Pastor’s Page into the Blog. The Bulletin is available online for a week; the Blog has an indefinite lifespan. It does not call for any additional content from the Pastor, just the addition of way to view and review the material.

Communications in the 21st Century can seem daunting to those of us who grew up with daily newspapers and transistor radios. But just as Guttenberg’s invention of movable type made literature available to a wider audience, today’s web-based communication techniques can make information available in real-time to a large audience. So go ahead and jump right in: change may be scary, but there are many benefits awaiting you!