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Remedial public relations for Vatican officials

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 15, 2010

Even from my vacation perch here on the Dingle peninsula, in the lovely home of lovely friends far from the reach of the mass media, I quickly heard about the Vatican’s release of new norms for the handling of grave ecclesiastical crimes.

This should be a “feel good” story—a balm for battered sensibilities, a story in which the Vatican would be portrayed in a favorable light. For weeks the media have been screaming for the Vatican to show a more severe attitude toward clerical abusers, and here that severe attitude is shown. (It has been shown for years to those who know where to look for it, and the norms made public today aren’t really a big story. That’s a different matter. You take your positive stories when you can get them.)

But wait. The headlines are mixed. Some reporters highlight the norms regarding abusers, while others choose to emphasize the penalties for attempted ordination of women. From the perspective of anyone who is not conversant with Catholic affairs—and virtually everyone in the mass media falls into that category—these are entirely separate issues, and the inclusion of women’s ordination in a story about sexual abuse seems quirky, confusing. The media don’t understand, so in their confusion they fall back on their reflexive reaction: they poke fun at the Church.

This was all completely avoidable, with the application of a few basic principles of public relations.

  • Help the media understand the story. Provide reporters with a list of people—both Vatican officials and media experts—who will be fully briefed on the norms and will reliably offer an informed perspective.
  • Get ahead of the story. Before releasing the norms, provide interested reporters with a briefing on the issues involved: why these norms are being released now, why they do not represent a significant change from existing policies, perhaps even why the women’s-ordination issue belongs in the same category.
  • Or, better, tell the story in stages. From the Vatican’s perspective—the canon-law perspective—the issue of women’s ordination belongs in the same category as the issue of sexual abuse; they are both among the most serious offenses that clerics can commit. Fine. But the rest of the world sees these things from a different perspective, and can’t make the same associations. So provide two briefings. First tell reporters about the norms as they apply to sexual abuse, providing story #1 for the headlines. Then, a day or two later, hold a second briefing and explain the norms about women’s ordination. That story will then run separately. The issues won’t be confused, and perhaps the stories won’t be so sarcastic. Then, after the explanation, release the text of the norms. The text might not then rate a news story, but that’s fine; the stories have already been written, with the Vatican furnishing the perspective.  

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: stpetric - Jul. 19, 2010 11:26 AM ET USA

    Yes, yes, yes! I even *like* these guys in the Vatican and want them to succeed--and the way they handle this stuff makes me wince. More competent p.r. won't turn the media into Catholic apologists, but we don't have hand-deliver to them a weapon to use against us.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jul. 16, 2010 5:33 PM ET USA

    As a lifelong reporter, editor and news director and a sometime media trainer, I understand what you're saying perfectly and, of course, agree with it 100%. It's PR101. (Disclosure: I never took such a course, but helped teach them.) But perhaps the chief PR problem corporations have had is that they don't understand the need for professional PR. They will never fail to ask their lawyers; they will never ask their flacks. It applies to ecclesial as well as to civil corpoprations.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 16, 2010 9:33 AM ET USA

    Most media will not get it- no matter what the Church does. That being said, there is a great deal of irony in the awkward and "out of touch" PR performances. The irony is that after more than a generation of advertising a kindler, gentler, more compassionate clergy; the opposite image has emerged. It's not just bad press. We must pray for true charity among the Church's leaders animated by that spiritual fire of Pentecost in uprooting the self-evident corruption that facilitated this mess.

  • Posted by: deacon2476427 - Jul. 15, 2010 4:25 PM ET USA

    I don't think we need to inform the media about the norms of the church, I think it is the Vatican who has the responsibility to present things so that the media and the simple folk understand what they are saying and why.

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