September 28, 2011

Do All Dogs Go to Heaven?

As if Noah had issued the call, animals of all sorts will descend in the next week upon Episcopal churches throughout the country.

Many congregations celebrate the feast of St. Francis with a blessing of the animals. Dogs and cats, of course, are invited guests, but so too are horses, snakes, guinea pigs, and birds. This celebration is tailor-made for good press. When I was a secular reporter, we joked that nothing sells papers better than a front-page picture of a kid or a dog – and even better, if we get both in the same shot.

The question is: How do you get the word out? How can you craft a press release that will entice a local reporter? And what are fair expectations of coverage?

First, gather all the details: time, location, description of activities, and other salient points – do the pets need a leash? Is there a reception afterward? Does the freewill offering support the local shelter (both a good thing to do – and a promotional plus!)?

Now, craft your first draft of a release. Come up with a catchy headline. (I’m a lover of puns and this event is ripe: St. Switham’s takes Paws – and claws and beaks too. Or steal the headline from this blog: Do all dogs go to heaven?) Add a secondary headline: Church celebrates pet blessing.

Begin the release with the most exciting part of your event: Dogs, cats, pigs, and hamsters will join the congregation of St. Switham’s on Sunday, Oct. 2 for an annual pet blessing. Then continue with more of the details. If your church is combining this event with an outreach effort, then play that up high in the release. This can increase your chances of getting publicity (and beyond that, is, you know, part of our Christian duty). I’ve heard of churches holding blessings at the local animal shelters, providing flea and tick baths, or even joining with a local vet for a free spay and neutering clinic.

End the release with a warm invitation: All are welcome. Include the church’s phone number as well as the physical and virtual addresses (and make sure this event is posted prominently on your website).

Proofread it a few times. Make sure to wipe it clean of Episcopal-only vernacular (Remember your audience!). Then send it by e-mail (and fax) to the local newspapers. Follow up with a phone call to the local desks of the newspaper, radio, and TV stations.

What to expect: Most large metropolitan news outlets are not going to cover the event, unless it’s a really slow news day or your event is particularly unusual (are you blessing the lions, tigers, and bears of the circus? Shamu?) But you may have a good opportunity with local outlets – community papers, AM news channels. In many ways, this is perfect for TV news – it’s nice, colorful filler with great visuals.

So why go to all this trouble to attract news coverage? Matthew doesn’t say it directly when he tells us to go and make disciples of all nations, but I think he probably meant to add, using the tools available to you at the time. The media can be a great vehicle to share the Good News, to share our Episcopal understanding of God’s creatures – and all of God’s creation.

Perhaps a few people watching the TV clip or reading the paper will consider joining a community that cares for its animals. Maybe they’ll say a prayer of thanksgiving for the animals in their lives or volunteer at the shelter. Maybe they’ll even come to church the next Sunday.

That would be the cat’s meow.

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