Eight Things to Keep in Mind when Issuing a Public Statement
By Abby Porth and David Bernstein
Two weeks ago, we co-authored “Nine Reasons Jewish Organizations Should Issue Fewer Statements.” The response was overwhelmingly positive. “Finally, someone said it out loud,” we heard from more than one person. But several people asked us “what criteria do you suggest for issuing a public statement?”
As we argued in in the previous article, public relations statements have their time and place. Here are eight things to consider before, during and after releasing a statement.
1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
When Jewish organizations think of issuing a PR statement today, it is often a reaction to a newsworthy event that stands in stark contrast to constituents’ views. But rather than rush to issue a PR statement, we must begin by asking “what is the most effective way to advance our constituents’ views?” For example, when the President’s Executive Orders on immigration and refugees were implemented, the San Francisco-based JCRC examined the Orders and also JCRC’s consensus policy position on immigration. The contrast was clear, so we had to determine how to solve the problem of the organized Bay Area Jewish community’s opposition to the Executive Orders. The answer wasn’t a PR statement. The answer was advocacy. In fact, we’re publishing here for the first time the letter sent to Bay Area Jewish constituents about this advocacy work and how they could join us.
2. What is the objective of the public statement? Who is the intended audience?
Very often, public statements are issued out of a perceived moral imperative, but written with no particular audience in mind. Are you trying to send a signal to a specific set of public officials or community partners? Are you trying to influence a segment of the Jewish community? What is the best way to influence this target audience? Is there a more effective influence strategy than a PR statement? Marketers speak of developing copy for a “persona,” literally conjuring up a particular person or persons who represent a target audience and writing it for them. Answering these questions will help institutions decide if a statement is warranted, and will make for a better, clearer and more compelling one if the answer is yes.
3. Which stakeholders need to review the statement?
In some cases, there’s enough time to check with multiple stakeholders and do the difficult but valuable back-and-forth deliberating and editing. Sometimes the timeframe is compressed due to a breaking situation or crisis. If it’s not timely, it may not be worth issuing. We suggest thinking through in advance which stakeholders you should involve with a minute’s notice and which ones with a week’s notice, and on what topics.
4. What is your organization’s unique perspective and why is it important that you weigh in?
Another reason for the glut of superfluous public statements is that too many organizations don’t ask if they are the party that should be issuing it. While there may be a general moral or political imperative to speak out, that doesn’t mean that every organization must be the one doing the talking. If you’ve decided that your organization should, it is valuable to explain why and speak to your organization’s unique perspective, responsibility, and leadership capability in solving the problem that is requiring a PR statement, in the statement itself.
5. Is this going to be a joint statement? Who else is signing on?
Public statements are a great opportunity to partner. It can be done with another Jewish group, other ethnic, racial, or religious groups to demonstrate the power of your coalition allies. Asking yourself these questions will increase the potential attention garnered by the statement. In fact, including others could be another important way to advance your constituents’ views on the problem you are trying to solve.
6. What is the main message for your target audience?
As with any public action, letter, opinion piece, or campaign, it’s critical to define the main message you want to convey to your target audience. For example, the main messages on immigration policy reform will look different for the target audiences of, say, one’s Congressional representative versus the Jewish community. For a member of Congress, the main messages might be gratitude for past support on other issues, ask for legislative support, conveying why this is an issue of Jewish concern, and a thoughtful articulation of how your main perspective can be represented while balancing the other competing interests the Member is hearing from other constituents.
7. What will we do with the statement?
Sometimes we think through the audience (#2) in order to craft the message (#6) but we fall short in thinking through the distribution. We send it out to “our list” and check off a box. The purpose of considering the intended audience is to ensure efficacy in issuing it. Why go to all the hassle if it doesn’t solve a problem (#1)? The target audience should be the main distribution list. Second to that is consideration of what other stakeholders, and constituencies, such as reporters, public officials, ethnic or religious groups, should receive the statement.
8. Are there any sensitive issues or potential for backlash?
You’ve already considered why not to issue a statement and determined that whatever risks exist are outweighed by the benefits, and you’ve taken great care to ensure that your statement advances your institution’s mission and principles. Do consider who will be offended, and if they are important constituents, and be in touch with them early on. You don’t want important stakeholders to be surprised, and furthermore, their voice and perspective might be helpful to you in the delicate crafting of the statement (#3). The more you anticipate, the more likely it is you will have answers to the tough questions that inevitably come your way.
Others have considered these important questions of if, when, and how to issue PR statements. Professor Jonathan Sarna at Brandeis University shared this from the American Academy of Religion. Do you have additional criteria to share? Please let us know in the comments!
Abby Porth is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco. David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein