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Creative adaptation of new communication platforms necessary, Neff says
The editor of one of the nation's leading Christian magazines affirmed the Seventh-day Adventist Church's commitment to corporate communication and the industry's fast-evolving best practices, saying that continuing such an investment yields dividends.
David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, said if the Adventist Church does not control its communication, someone else will. "It will get done some other way," Neff said.
To communicate effectively and benefit from reader interaction and feedback, church communicators must adapt to changes in media and communication platforms, he said.
Neff delivered his remarks during the keynote address of the Society of Adventist Communicators annual convention on Friday, October 21. Nearly 200 participants are meeting this year in Lombard, Illinois, for networking and training in public relations' best practices.
Neff was picked to headline the event because of his knowledge of current trends in communication, said George Johnson, Communication director for the Adventist Church in North America. The society typically selects speakers in the region of its annual convention. "We knew coming to the Chicago area we could draw on the knowledge of David and what he had to offer," Johnson said.
Christianity Today, based in nearby Chicago suburb of Carol Stream, was founded by Evangelical Protestant minister Billy Graham in 1956. It has a circulation of 130,000 and a readership of 275,000 including its digital offerings, according to its website.
Neff called communication the "lifeblood" of an organization. "Pay attention to your readers, what they need, what they think they need and how they read," he said. "Communicate vigorously, clearly and transparently. That investment will pay off. Don't cut back."
Neff's keynote address, "Google and Gutenberg," traced the evolution of communication platforms, beginning with the very first "early adaptors" who traded their scrolls for books in the 13th Century. Christians today can learn from how those in the past became clear channels for sharing Christ, he said.
"Revolutions in communication always mean new possibilities," Neff said. "New adaptation is necessary. Under God's providence, your creative adaptation can and will bear good fruit."
That flexibility is especially crucial as today's technology continues to present new media and platforms, Neff said. When he took the helm at Christianity Today in 1985, Neff said he felt the Internet was "ephemeral and perhaps amusing," but would never replace the permanence of print media. The magazine was America Online's first religious content provider. Now, 50 percent of organization's content exists exclusively online, generating media buzz ahead of the print edition.
While new media platforms mean an organization's content can go viral "incredibly fast," it also jeopardizes the organization's brand, Neff said. The drawback of such quick distribution, he said, is that online readers don't know what and where they are reading. "They'll say they 'saw it on Facebook.' One of their friends posted a link, and the article is now associated with their friend's good taste rather than the journalistic brand that brought it to them," Neff said.
Also, with instant updates from Facebook and Twitter, more traditional media must adapt, he said. Video can evoke emotional response unlike any other media, but many communicators aren't capitalizing on that strength, Neff said. Instead, "we settle for a talking head and, at best, several talking heads in a living room setting."
Even online content must adapt as media platforms evolve, Neff said, citing a recent study that reported 6.7 percent of Internet traffic now comes from mobile devices.
Research of an audience is key, said Kimberly Maran, SAC president and assistant editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines.
"I applaud Christianity Today for the research they're doing to find out how to better serve their audience," Maran said. "I think that's something that we Adventist Communicators can do more of and do better."
The society is scheduled to meet next year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States.
- Adventist News Network