In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: God’s victory over Mammon in the comms business

SAY what you like about religion – and of course you do – but the business of reporting on it is made much easier when a comms team like the Church of Scotland’s is around to assist.

There was no question beforehand that the so-called ‘gay ministers in the Kirk’ debate was going to be a big story at the General Assembly last week — and it was.

This controversy was the kicker for centimetre upon centimetre of meaty stuff that made headlines in every newspaper in the country.

Words and pictures from the Mound in Edinburgh competed with big breaking stories and won a prominent place in the running order of 24-hour TV and radio news bulletins.

And these religion stories remarkably remained on the schedules at a time when secularism appears to be the flavour of the month and most news desks don’t ‘do’ God.

The Kirk’s comms team pulled out the stops so slickly that most journalists didn’t even have to get off their backsides to report what was happening in the Assembly.

It would appear that God can outdo Mammon when it comes to the business of media communications.

The Kirk laid on live streaming on the web of the huge volume of business taking place and a large press office and media room was provided in the New College with a big screen and small TV monitors.

There was an adequate allocation of Press seats in the main meeting hall plus Wi-Fi and facilities for laptops, and free copies of the informative ‘Blue Book’, plus additional material for reporters.

Access was made available to anyone the media wished to interview, without exception, and there was provision for TV stand-ups and Press photo calls and even pool pictures provided free of charge.

No journalist had to look further than the Press desk for an explanation of anything that was puzzling them.

This was much handier than the free pens, notebooks and even chocolate bars handed out in ‘goody bags’ by the comms teams of some commercial organisations, councils and government.

The General Assembly is the supreme court of the Church, and it has a long-standing reputation for being difficult and dour.

The procedures and terminology can be impenetrable even for greying hacks like me – never mind young journalists who may never have crossed the threshold of a church or covered a presbytery meeting.

However, the Kirk’s new communications director, Seonag Mackinnon, formerly education correspondent of BBC Scotland, laid on a press and media facility to rival the slickest multi-national or government department.

Her hard-working and – importantly – personable team of Nick Jury, Fiona Lang and Colin McGregor poured out timeously a plethora of press releases on everything from nuclear weapons to the soaring cost of funerals.

This was an extremely slick, professional performance on their part.

One of their best aids to reporters was a jargon buster which explained, in layman’s terms, some of the archaic language.

Less helpful was a restriction on reporters using the commissioners’ coffee room. Although free coffee and biscuits were on tap for the religion hacks, this prevented us mixing informally with the ministers and elders, which would doubtless have led to even better relations between the media and the ministry.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.