Church Communications and the Streisand Effect

If you are not familiar with the term “Streisand Effect” and you work in leadership where you certainly deal with church communications you are missing a very important phenomena in our culture today. Barbara Streisand in 2003 sued a photographer in order to ban her coastline home from public exposition on a website about soil erosion. As the story goes, only six downloads of the photo existed, with two downloads of the photo logged by the plaintiff attorney regarding the case in question. Due to the notion of a impending banned photo, the public downloaded the photo 420,000 times within the next month.

Here’s the point: common sense says that if Streisand had allowed the scientific photographer to continue his work unhindered, this now famous photo would instead live in obscurity and exist as only a footnote for those researching soil erosion on the California coast. And, Barbara Streisand’s home in theory would remain unrecognized to the public. The notion of controlling information by withholding it no longer exists in an online-bathed word. In fact, “controlled information” is an oxymoron. In our church settings we need to let the whole idea simply die. Let’s explore for a bit how this plays out in church communications.

In one story I will tell, a church stated on the departure of a staff member, “It is not a firing nor a resignation” in its communication to their parishioners. This kind of attempt to perhaps protect all parties actually had the reverse effect because people’s curiosity was perked, even those that need not be involved. The Streisand Effect is in full force. What is the “true” reason this individual is leaving? Who is responsible?  What am I not being told? I confidently assume rightly godly motives on both sides in this example, however controlling the information like this tempts people into gossip, distrust, and disillusionment. What can be observed often in church communication is that when you burry something you put a huge spotlight on it. This is true even if you are burring it for good reasons, as well.

In a perfect world, leaders leave without a cloud and the church left behind is unscathed. But, we need to be realistic and understand that controlling information in this age only weakens our point of leadership. There likely are some dark things in any event, even when all have good intentions. Our fear and patterns of control damage our ability to focus on the main thing since they draw people’s attention to what we hope they wont see. The more we desire to hide, the more the very information that once benignly exist is used as fodder for the worst in human nature. Paul the Apostle does not refer to Christians “devouring one another” twice in separate Epistles for no reason. He knew very well what churches experience on a daily basis.

In a church I served, we had volume complaints for the worship team–which happens in almost every church I know of. I was in charge of the weekly worship service programming and worship which included our audio team. In a business meeting, the pastor mentioned the volume complaints and then said we were working on it and that it was due to “operator error”. As those words came out of his mouth, the entire volunteer audio team sunk in their chairs. The desire to spin information in the form of control can easily lead us to blame shifting. To put things in a better light, is using a political tactic that means we automatically assume a winner and loser. When you choose this game, you will force someone to lose that otherwise may not have to.

The behind the scenes politics in this referred instance had nothing to do with operator error. The sound system had a terrible EQ setting in the install in the back fill speakers. When a concerned member desired to help by pointing this out, his collaboration actually proved this point and the problem was resolved. Our all volunteer tech crew did not need to take the fall to reduce the heat to the leadership. No one had to take the fall. When we control information, we create winners and losers. And, that does not have to be the case in many situations we fear reprisals.

One of the most refreshing things I recently heard recounted was a leader who shared openly the reasons why he was letting go a staff member. It honored all involved, even though the information was quite difficult for all to hear. In the long run, a leader who is willing to take the heat in communicating truth will earn the trust and stripes to deliver bad news when needed. He or she will also garner support when he needs to put the heat on the people to move in a different direction together. Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust. Which will you choose to employ in your church leadership communications?

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

17 comments

  1. Interesting post, Rich. I noticed in my years in business leadership that when leaders tried to hide, bury, or otherwise obscure the reasons behind events visible to employees, all kinds of wild and weird speculation would start — most of it much worse than the truth of the situation. Rumors seem to love a vacuum, so if there is no reasonable and transparent explanation, you’ll certainly have lots of them. While you have to protect people’s right to privacy, I’d be hard pressed to imagine any justification for speaking anything other than the truth.

    You also described an incident that I would have called "throwing someone under the bus." I’ve seen this done both intentionally, mistakenly, and accidentally. I do think the intent behind the comment is important. If the leader you described made the remark for either of the latter two reasons, a short discussion with him/her should bear heavily enough on their conscience that he/she would feel compelled to correct the impression at the next convenient time. If the remark was intentional…well, I guess that tells you something completely different.

    1. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Tom. That conversation did happen in that second incident, and unfortunately even though conscience weighed a price had to be paid for pointing out the "throwing under the bus" of that team.

  2. Rich, thanks for this great article and discussion on leadership and good communications. Particularly liked this statement near the very end: "Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust."

  3. Rich, thanks for this great article and discussion on leadership and good communications. Particularly liked this statement near the very end: "Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust."

  4. Rich, thanks for this great article and discussion on leadership and good communications. Particularly liked this statement near the very end: "Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust."

  5. Rich, thanks for this great article and discussion on leadership and good communications. Particularly liked this statement near the very end: "Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust."

  6. Rich, thanks for this great article and discussion on leadership and good communications. Particularly liked this statement near the very end: "Control and fear can be exchanged for openness and trust."

  7. Great comments Rich, and unfortunately too common a problem in churches. Thanks for bringing light to this. Retweet coming.

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