Yesterday, I kicked off a conversation on 24-7 Branding - how organization's identities convey or don't convey in the interactive space. For a current example, I'm going to look at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL. Trinity has been getting increasing media coverage because it is the church home of presidential candidate Sen.Barack Obama. Trinity's website recently got on to the radar of Sean Hannity of Hannity and Colmes on Fox News channel.
The conservative Christian columnist Erik Rush wrote this piece on Sen. Obama's church.

He labels the church separatist, cultish, racist, and draws a so far-fetched-it-is-comical comparison to the Branch Davidian sect - all based on what? Wait for it. The church's website.

Specifically, the editorial was based on Mr. Rush's impressions after viewing the church's "About Us" area of the site, including the 12 point vision or creed, which centers around the church's motto of being "Unashamedly Black, and Unapologetically Christian." The vision outlines the church's commitment to the community in which it resides, which is composed primarily of African-Americans on the South Side of Chicago. Fox News picked up Mr. Rush's column, and in a 2-part series on the Hannity and Colmes show, Sean Hannity first interviewed Mr. Rush and later, Trinity's senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Mr. Rush's Interview is here. Rev.Dr. Wright's interview is here.

Having watched both interviews multiple times on YouTube, I'm 99.9% certain neither Mr. Hannity nor Mr. Rush did their homework on this story, as any journalist worth their salt would have. There is no indication that either Mr. Hannity or Mr. Rush ever attended a worship service or Bible study at Trinity to gain any first-hand knowledge. I can guarantee you they would have been acknowledged warmly like any other visitor and gotten a hearty hug,smile, and welcome from the membership during the 'sharing of the peace' portion of the service. Nor, does it appear they did any research on the United Church of Christ, or they would know it is a mainline Protestant denomination which has been in existence since 1957 with congregations throughout the US. (Mr. Hannity mistates the church's name throughout the interview, and never gets it right once.)

Like Mr. Rush, all Mr. Hannity referenced in the interview was the vision statement in the About Us section on the church's website. My purpose here is not to debate Mr. Hannity's ignorance of theology. What I am suggesting is how an organization's web persona and that organization itself have become one and the same in our society.

Thankfully, Trinity was prepared. It also appears they took the time to supplement their vision statement online with what they term, 'Talking Points' to the plan, so as to elaborate on their intent and substance. I will note here that Dr.Wright is a highly respected theological scholar who has 4 earned degrees and speaks 7 different languages. I can personally attest to you nothing at Trinity is done or said without a sound, intelligent, theological basis to it.

In terms of the impact to an institution or a brand, it doesn't matter if this is a church, or a Fortune 500 corporation in question. That a section of the website of a large house of worship all of a sudden becomes a serious flashpoint for a US presidential election should be a wake-up call to businesses around the world. As I stated above, organizations can't rely on society or the media to perform due dillegence prior to judging or writing about them. Public or private, for-profit or non-profit, institutions have to ask the question:

"If the media, a customer, or advocacy group, never talked to a single member of our organization, are we confident the brand identity on our website effectively represents us?"

Full Disclosure: I was a member of Trinity UCC from 1988-1993 until I moved away. I have also been a licensed Protestant minister for the past 7 years. Unfortunately I did not know Sen. Obama. With membership hovering at 5000 during that time, this is understandable :-)