Guest post from Sherwood Fellows.
I just stepped out of a sales meeting with a parish that’s considering hiring our agency in place of a full-time communications director.
As someone who’s been heavily involved in parish ministry and marketing in the business world, I suspected that using an agency like ours instead of a hiring a communications director would be great for a parish in many ways. They approached us about this- not the other way around. As someone who has long been waving a banner for parishes to hire communications directors, I saw it as a bit of a sacred cow. But the conversation with that parish confirmed a lot of my thoughts on this subject, and so in the spirit of transparency, I thought I would publish them.
Don’t think I’m just making a case for everyone to use Sherwood Fellows. How a parish goes about its communications affects everything: the future of the parish and even if more people will come to Mass. Parish leadership needs to make an informed decision.
Communications work shouldn't be managed by volunteers- it is absolutely essential to long-term parish success, and it needs skilled proficient labor to be done correctly.
So the question I am taking up with this blog is if you are looking at making your first major investment in communications, should you hire one professional or several professionals?
As a caveat to my title, I do believe that the goal should be to have an in-house team and a partner agency. There is a reason why every Fortune 500 agency operates from this model. The question I am taking up is specifically in regards to timing- which one should I get first?
Here are three reasons you should hire an agency before hiring a communications director.
1. A Jack of All Trades is a Master of None
Usually, a church that is hiring their first communications director is hiring someone who will oversee strategy, do a web redesign, do a rebrand, probably choose software, dabble in video production, definitely post on social media, and do lots of graphic design for promotional materials.
In the marketing world, these are all different jobs for different people.
A full-time communications director rarely can be proficient in all of these things, and they are almost never given a budget to hire outside help to do the things that they are not proficient in. That means some things will be done poorly, or not at all. You’ll probably have to hash out for agency help anyway to fill in the gaps.
So why not just hire an agency that can do all of these things until you have proven the value of communications and can afford a larger budget?
2. More Efficient Spending
Because a one-man communications director performs a wide array of tasks from strategy to design, hiring them means spending your money inefficiently.
For instance, the value of creating a communications strategy is much higher than the value of a poster design. If you hire one communications director, you pay the same amount for both. Not only will one probably be lower quality than the other, but you’ll be grossly overspending on the poster or grossly under-spending on the strategy.
If you hire an agency, they will allocate funds to different members of the team based on the value of each task. Their account director will be specialized in strategy and will be paid market value for it, and they can most likely get the poster done for a much cheaper than you would have paid your communications director for their time.
An agency’s ability to allocate funds across different roles makes your investment more efficient and potentially far more valuable
3. Craft the Right Position for the Right Person
When the strategy is done by an agency before you hire a full-time person, you have a much much lower risk of structuring the job in a way that will burn out your budding talent. The usual way that we hire communications directors in the church is very flawed because we don't already have someone on staff who understands communications before we make the hire.
If you don't have someone on staff that already is an expert in communications, you are almost assuredly going to either hire the wrong person or hire the right person for the totally wrong things. Ideally, you’d have an expert in communications that structures the job and then helps you hire accordingly. If you don't have that expert on staff already, you don't know exactly what a marketing professional can do or what you should expect from them.
If you make an uninformed hire, they’ll most likely end up as a foot soldier who operates at the beck and call of the other ministries, unable to achieve conflicting goals from four bosses with conflicting visions.
I have seen this over and over, and it often leads to either burnout or simply ineffective work, or both. This is because communication strategy starts at the very highest level of organization leadership and permeates each level of leadership after that.
For a communications director to be successful, they need to be able to hold the entire staff and culture of the church accountable to the brand and strategy that has been established. Basically, their role on staff needs to be set up according to these communications principles. If you hire a (good) agency first, you are likely to have a much better understanding of what you need in a director, and you will set them up for much more long-term success.
Of course, this all depends on hiring a great agency (that is actually good at consulting and strategy and all the other pieces as well). Also, I believe the ideal is to have both an in-house staff and a partner agency; there is a reason why almost every successful company uses both. It’s more of a question of who to hire first.
Objections and Rebuttals.
I brought these thoughts to the Catholic Creatives group, and the perspectives of communications directors and other people with parish work experience were insightful. I wanted to bring up some of their objections and give a clear answer to them.
“I think a major downfall of an agency, especially if they aren't officing right down the road, is that having that personal, face-to-face expert on communications can have a huge impact on the success.”
Communication doesn’t have to be face-to-face to be personal. Online communications tools like Slack (which is free) make communication easy, and they make everyone accessible. An agency would feel like they’re just down the hall. People in the same office already Skype or call each other already.
“I think that you will find that your biggest struggle will actually be ... getting people to actually buy into the value of what you are doing or the value of Communications Director full time for that matter. I may have the position but sometimes I do have to convince other people on staff why I am requesting we do things a certain way or why a certain aspect is so important.”
That’s certainly a challenge, but any parish that’s really considering a Communications Director should already understand that they’re making an investment for a reason. And they also don’t want to waste money or time by not having that Communications Director armed with the right branding and tools. An agency can’t convince someone to buy something they don’t need, but the people who already understand will recognize the value of preparing the right assets for the Communications Director, whether full-time or part-time. In fact, with the right assets, even a part-time Communications Director would have a huge headstart.
“As an agency, your major downfall is going to be the fact that you don't have the ability to build a relationship with the people who are running the ministries at the parish. These people are present day in and day out and, believe me, it takes time to gain their trust.”
Definitely a good point. Not just any agency could walk into a parish and be effective; they’d try to run it exactly like a business. Only an agency with a deep understanding of the parish ecosystem and a true love for the mission of the Church could make this work.
“As far as strategy, it depends on what the church is trying to accomplish. If they want to grow the parish as a whole, then that's one thing and strategy is definitely needed. If they are just trying to increase communication within their own parish and get more parishioners involved then good luck. The Catholic Church is its own type of beast and traditional strategy just doesn't always work."
Again, an agency with a strict business mindset might not cut it. The agency would have to know that just putting something on the website doesn’t mean anyone will see it. A modern communications plan doesn’t mean “just online.” It means using best-practice thinking to use all available communication channels to accomplish the parish goals -- and that includes the bulletin.
“So if you were to be approaching parishes, I'd suggest drawing a STARK distinction between your agency and any other agency because you're actually Catholic and have the knowledge and sense of how things work in the Church and pitfalls to avoid.”
And that’s exactly where Sherwood Fellows stands out. We’ve all been deeply involved in parish ministries and are committed Catholics. We’re not going to help a parish like we would help a retail store. We’re familiar with how parishes work, and we love to see parishes thrive.
Whatever the parish, I think these challenges can be overcome with commitment from both sides, and an agency like ours could help produce great results and set up the future Communications Director for success.
What do you think?
“I think a major downfall of an agency, especially if they aren't officing right down the road, is that having that personal, face-to-face expert on communications can have a huge impact on the success. If no one at the parish is fully committed to implementing a strategy or the day-to-day aspects, there is only so much an agency can do.... ”
“The church I work for did some branding prior to the Comms Dir position being created. However, the person who helped with this was a parishioner and volunteer. The agency did not, however, help with any branding from a larger perspective. We have a logo, letterhead, some fancy mailing stickers and business cards, but that is as much as I know that they created for the parish as far as collateral.”
“I think that you will find that your biggest struggle will actually be the part that you were discussing about getting people to actually buy into the value of what you are doing or the value of Communications Director full time for that matter. I may have the position but sometimes I do have to convince other people on staff why I am requesting we do things a certain way or why a certain aspect is so important.”
“As an agency, your major downfall is going to be the fact that you don't have the ability to build a relationship with the people who are running the ministries at the parish. These people are present day in and day out and, believe me, it takes time to gain their trust. That is really, really difficult to do when you aren't actually present on site. Also a note on the ministries - there is no perfect system to get them all on board and good luck getting 60 plus ministries to try to comply with your branding guidelines - it just won't happen. And if you try to force it in their parish I believe it will end badly. You have to remember the years that these people have spent investing in their own parish before "outsiders" came in to try to run things. That isn't to say it wouldn't work - but it's delicate.”
“As far as strategy, it depends on what the church is trying to accomplish. If they want to grow the parish as a whole, then that's one thing and strategy is definitely needed. If they are just trying to increase communication within their own parish and get more parishioners involved then good luck. The Catholic Church is its own type of beast and traditional strategy just doesn't always work. For example, posted a SoMe post about a call to action and almost nobody responded for a week. Posted the same message in our bulletin and I had more than a dozen people respond to the call. So, something that should have worked based on our modern marketing principles, didn't inspire anyone to do anything. That's not to say that strategy isn't important, I've done more of it in the last six months than ever, but the strategy for the church isn't necessarily going to work as it would for a traditional nonprofit or for-profit business.
I was youth minister at a parish that hired an agency and while the kickoff worked well for a branding and website redesign, the follow through wasn't there. Like a previous poster wrote, they weren't down the street and definitely not in the office - they weren't there for the daily or weekly corrections in message that the parish wanted. It basically devolved into ministries sending their weekly images for the TV display in the vestibule and monthly/quarterly meetings where the parish staff tried to explain the minutia of parish life to the non-Catholics who were running the agency.
So if you were to be approaching parishes, I'd suggest drawing a STARK distinction between your agency and any other agency because you're actually Catholic and have the knowledge and sense of how things work in the Church and pitfalls to avoid.
As far as the daily/weekly life of the parish, that's where you're weakest against the comm director position. If you could somehow insert yourself in the everyday - maybe a slack board for each parish where they can post thoughts about messaging or happenings in the parish (bishop visiting, sudden and unexpected deaths that impact the parish, frequent renovation updates, etc). Of course, it would require someone to be committed to that. - Andrew Sciba