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A Ramadan Public Relations Plan for American Muslim Community Centers

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Link to all Ramadan 2011 posts

The month that we have sought out all year is here! Insha’Allah we prepared ourselves, our families and our homes to maximize the blessing of Ramadan. However, unlike stocking our refrigerators, preparing our mosques for non-Muslim visitors and members of the Media are essential tasks that we often neglect. Here are some easy last-minute steps!

Public relations is all about positively managing relationships. As you read this, please adopt the vantage point of a non-Muslim who has never been to your center. Walk yourself step by step in their shoes, starting with googling the local Muslim community, their attempts at calling the local mosques, their commute, parking, signage (especially at the entrance and in lobby area), what might happen when they enter the building, what they will do while they are there and how will the visit be concluded.

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The following are key items to consider.

Section 1 – Correspondence before a visit:

Many Islamic centers fail horribly in their phone and email communication. However, the good news is technology is on your side! Create a system to respond to incoming calls and e-mails in a timely manner. Few things can be more frustrating than trying to schedule a visit at a Muslim community center, so let’s streamline this as much as we can.

We have all had the experience; you know, calling a mosque and one of several things happens or fails to happen:

1)      The phone rings FOREVER! During normal business hours it is inexcusable to not have a live person answering the phone, let alone a functioning voicemail system.

2)      The receptionist is a “chacha” (uncle) or an auntie with little to no command of the English language! Nothing says welcome to the center like a complete failure to communicate.

3)      The person who answers the phone is rude!

4)      You are put on hold FOREVER

5)      You are told that you are going to be transferred … and you get the dial tone!

Enter Google Voice (it’s free) or any service for that matter, just make sure that you have the following:

1)      A clear greeting. If you say Asalaam Alaikum or Ramadan Mubarak, then you have to translate it too. OK, OK, May God’s Peace be with you and May you have the blessings of Ramadan.

2)      Ask the caller to leave their number; this tells them you are responsive and that you care that they called.

3)      Ask them to state why they called; this will help you prioritize your responses.

4)      List the hours of operation and any special instructions for guests or first time visitors. Try to put visitors at ease by helping them know what to expect and that visitors ARE welcome. Be sure to include Iftar (fast-breaking meal) details (explain what it is) and prayer times.

5)      Include an assurance that you will call them back within __X__ hours/days

6)      Finish by thanking them and listing your website address with the language of: Visit us online at www.yourlocalislamiccenter.com

NOTE: The same information should be posted on a “Visit Us” page on your website. It would be even better to have a “Schedule Your Visit” form that would e-mail you appointments and group details.

7)      Lastly, set up a call forwarding service that you can turn off and on when needed. This will allow staff or volunteers to take calls remotely. A good service will show that the call was originally for the mosque, alerting the answerer to use the appropriate greeting. This is important during emergency situations or when a high priority call is expected.

8)      Whoever is trusted with answering the phones should always keep a pen and notepad with them.

Section 2 – Create a welcoming committee:

Imagine that all you know about Islam and Muslims is what you’ve seen online and on cable news. Then, Allah (God) inspires you to visit a mosque and you get past the website, email and telephone issues. So you drive to the center and (if there is no welcoming committee) one of two scenarios are likely:

Situation #1 No one is there! The door was unlocked. So you hesitantly go inside, call out a questioning “hello?” and it just echoes. You look around, no information table, no sign that says “Welcome,” no community bulletins and no visitor sign-in sheet. In many cases, it is just a hallway with a bunch of dusty bookshelves serving as shoe racks and a bunch of random fliers for events that have already taken place in random and haphazard stacks. Then you notice doors to a big, empty but carpeted space and the only signs you see says “No Shoes.” Next to those doors you see a bathroom and you think to yourself… did I enter in the backdoor?

Situation #2 No one who is there works there! You walk in, and no one smiles. (We won’t touch what might happen if a woman entered a door designated as the men’s entrance.) Then, no one greets you. Next it becomes clear that there is no plan to accommodate visitors and you find out very quickly that you are in the way and disrupting people’s schedules.

* NOTE: Of course there are millions of alternatives on how an unannounced visitor could play out; it may even be a very positive experience, but why risk it? Having a welcoming community that plans for visitors is a proactive, low cost way to get your community members involved in the center’s success. That old saying — you only get one chance to make a first impression — is true, so let’s put our best foot forward insha’Allah. Just ask yourself how you would like to be treated if you were a visitor at someone else’s house of worship and then make it happen.

The Basics of a Great Welcoming Committee:

A great welcoming committee should be made up of friendly and knowledgeable Muslims and Muslimahs (Muslim women). At least one person should be “on duty” during operational hours (anytime the building is open to the public), but at a bare minimum you should have someone ready for visitors during events and community functions like tarawih (night prayers). These people need to have enough standing in the community that they could manage other community members’ reactions while showing visitors around.

Example: Enter that one brother who wants to ask every non-Muslim he meets controversial questions… before he even knows their names. Your welcome committee members must be able to shut someone like this down politely and have the full support of the Imam and the mosque board.

They should be friendly, dress appropriately, have a good command of English and should be knowledgeable enough to defer difficult questions to the Imam and to admit that they don’t know the answer to every question. Most importantly they must be passionate about Islam AND be well-adjusted and happy people!

Tools for the Welcoming Committee:

Printed Materials:

Have some materials about the center, Islam and Ramadan ready to offer. For printed materials about the center, be sure to use lots of photos. A simple tri-fold will serve the purpose. It should feature some historical information like when the center was founded or when it was built, what services are offered, how many attendees it currently has, include any distinguishing features or interesting facts and be sure to highlight some biographical information about the Imam and other community leaders to help humanize the center and finish by listing the website, phone number and hours of operation.

Dress Codes & Clothing:

Have a stock of extra hijabs (scarves) and clothes to offer if a visitor indicates that they feel self-conscious about the clothing they are wearing. If the center has a dress code, it should be posted and clearly visible and well thought through. Any dress code should be consistently applied and should feature minimum requirements for both males and females. You do not want to ask a non-Muslim to take on special clothing requirements and then have them see Muslims who are dressed less modestly than they are at the center. Make these items gifts. Let the person know that it is/will be theirs so they do not have to worry about hygiene. Do not force women to wear a scarf or other clothing except in extreme circumstances. 99% of the time people who will come to the mosque will be open minded and will appreciate and want to adhere to the social norms. Your guidance before visitors arrive will be crucial; people generally do not want to cause offense, especially once they arrive and are in a public setting. How we treat non-Muslim visitors will reverberate throughout the community.

Space reserved for visitors in the center and in the prayer hall:

TRUE STORY: I once was asked to make sure that no non-Muslim females entered the prayer hall if it was that time of the month during their visit!

Create a designated space for your guests. Make it a space that is not distracting for the congregation and that is also respectful of the visitors. Do not make them feel like they were shoved into a dusty corner or are being hidden from the people. Have easy-to-set-up chairs and people to answer their questions, explain rituals or even to translate, if needed, during a lecture.

TIP: Nearly everyone loves kids, so find a way to have a young Muslim child offer them something even if it is just a greeting and a smile.

Have a security and/or parking team:

Train your security and parking teams to direct people who look lost or confused to the lobby or other location where a welcoming committee member can meet them. If you are expecting guests, your security and parking teams need to know. At all times they need to know who is on the welcoming committee and who from the committee is on call at that time so they can instruct the visitors to them.

While we are on the subject of parking, take steps to be more courteous to your neighbors. This is especially important if the mosque is in a residential area. Let them know in advance when you expect a lot of traffic.

TRUE STORY: A few years back a pretty large mosque in North Texas had its first candidate forum. The major politicians for each race showed up and as did the invited non-Muslim neighbors. The event was a big success, the mosque was packed and at least half of the attendees were non-Muslims. During the Q&A session, the first question was given to a little elderly blue-haired lady who stood up, and in front of everyone asked: “How come you all are so uncivilized that you park in my yard every Friday?”

Section 3 – The Media:

With the current climate surrounding Islam and Muslims in America, the upcoming presidential elections, the 24-hour news cycle and the 10 year memorial of Sept. 11th just around the corner, this Ramadan may present more than the normal potential for members of the media to drop by unannounced. For all visitors to your center, sections 1 and 2 above are important. However, for visitors from the mass media, who will be seeking to film your center, interview your staff and your community members and then publish or broadcast what they recorded at your center, the following steps are vital.

1)      Always have one person who can make decisions for the mosque or community center on site during events.

2)      Train your receptionist/administrator on how to handle a call from the media. More here.

3)      Train your parking and security teams for the arrival of media professionals. When they are expected have designated parking spaces for them.

TIP: make sure that no one will double-park behind them, or any visitor for that matter. Media professionals live by tight schedules and have to be able to move on quickly.

4)      Know the difference between speaking to a member of the media and being in an interview with the media. Never start answering questions without a clear understanding of the situation. Remember that all mics are always on!

5)      Know the difference between a community member speaking and a representative of the Islamic center speaking. A community member only represents themselves. At most, a community member can be seen as voicing popular sentiment. A verifiable representative of the Islamic center has a title and authority to speak on behalf of the congregation even if acting alone. You cannot prevent a willing community member from talking to the press but you can clarify who and what that person represents.

6)      Know your scope. As a local mosque, you represent your local constituents. Do not exceed your mandate, and never speak for a group larger than you really represent.

7)      Be honest.

8)      Send a thank you note for accurate and positive coverage.

Again, this was written to cover common issues and simple steps that can be implemented fairly quickly. If you have specific questions, feel free to ask them below in the comments. I will only publish questions that I believe will benefit the majority of our readers, but I will try to respond to specific questions via e-mail.

JazakAllahu Khairan and may Allah help us to improve ourselves and the image of Islam and Muslims.  Ameen.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Paul "Iesa" Galloway is a native born Texan. He was recently called "the Yoda of interfaith affairs" by a colleague from his daytime gig. After hours Iesa serves as a consultant, messaging strategist and trainer on media, government and community relations. Iesa is a product of the "Military Brat" experience of the 1990's on US Army bases in Germany he has traveled extensively, for extended periods in Kenya, Hungary and Communist Poland on missionary trips, visited Communist East Germany with the Boy Scouts of America, as well as enjoyed time in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Austria. Since embracing Islam, Iesa was asked to be the founding Executive Director of CAIR-Houston, where he served the community from 2002 to 2006, he has completed the Hajj pilgrimage, participated in an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Society for Biblical Studies and completed a study abroad program on the history of Islamic Spain, Morocco and Andalusian Philosophy with the University of Houston. Iesa's education is rooted in History and Public Relations and he has a interfaith and multiracial background.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Robi Chowdhury

    August 5, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Brilliant article :)

  2. Yasmin Raoufi

    August 5, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Mashallah, I am surprised at the wealth of information presented in this article. First of all, I would never have thought of opening up the mosque for non-Muslims and the media during Ramadan so this was truly a brilliant idea. I love the fact that all the tips that the author gave can be used anytime of the year. My personal favorite tip was setting up a Welcome committee. I think that this is a great idea because a Welcome committee can greet and take care of non-Muslim visitors in a very organized and effective manner.

    • Iesa Galloway

      August 5, 2011 at 2:13 PM

      Asalaam Alaikum,

      I think a welcoming committee can be directed at Muslims as well, especially first time visitors and new attendees. The Masjid in College Station, TX had a system where after any community event they would recognize and welcome any visitors, Muslim or not. It was a bit embarrassing to be called to the front of the Masjid with everyone staring at you right after Jummah, but it sure did make you feel welcome, because right after your Salah a host of folks was there saying Salaam and smiling!

      Also, a good welcoming committee could help buffer that super serious attitude that sometimes takes over a Masjid. I mean almost upset looking, “pious face” syndrome where no one similes…

      One thing to be careful of is going overboard. Too much or fake smiles/kindness will backfire and can feel like a burden! To illustrate what I mean, think of a time a restaurant where the waiter stopped by so much that you did not enjoy your meal.

      Iesa

  3. Safia Farole

    August 5, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    This is a topic that needed to be brought to light. The recommendations are very practical, and just need a little effort to be implemented. I know my local masjid does things impromptu when visitors come, but having a designated welcome committee (with sisters on board) would make things run a lot smoother.

  4. Hena Zuberi

    August 5, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    This is awesome MashaAllah I need to send this to my masjid BOD who I have been asking for what seems like forever to invite the mayor and police chief over for an Open House-it doesn’t matter if you are a tiny masjid or a huge one- you represent Muslims in your community.

    Few questions:
    What about sending something over to the neighbors to let them know Ramadan is here. And what do you think about sending food stuff to neighbors ie cake on Eid to the church next door.

  5. Pingback: Ramadan is Your Time to Visit a Masjid | Islamophobia TV

  6. n

    August 5, 2011 at 10:12 PM

    AWESOME article and so practical!

  7. M Ali

    June 3, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    As-salamu-alaikum,

    Any recommendations for a good call-forwarding service?

    Can Google voice be used to fwd to multiple numbers or it 1-1 relationship?

  8. Dubai Prayer Times

    June 10, 2019 at 2:57 PM

    AWESOME post and so practical!

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