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Papal health rumors expose more Vatican PR blunders

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 15, 2013

Since Pope Benedict announced his plans to resign, enterprising reporters—understandably anxious to explore any possible medical explanation—have ferreted out the facts that the Pope had the battery on his pacemaker replaced recently, and hurt his head in a fall during his trip to Mexico last year. Each of these facts has been confirmed, tardily and reluctantly, by the Vatican press office.

Why? What’s the big secret? Tens of thousands of people now have pacemakers, and the replacement of their batteries is routine. If the Vatican press office had issued a “by the way” announcement, saying that the Holy Father was due for the operation, it would have merited only a line or two on the back pages of major newspapers. Similarly, if his head injury had been disclosed at the time, it would have been a footnote in stories about his trip.

But now, since the stories didn’t come out when they were timely, reporters wonder whether the Vatican was covering up something. So a routine operation and a bump on the head can be patched into fabric of broader conspiracy theories.

When will the Vatican learn? When you cover up evidence—even evidence of the most innocent and innocuous sort—you risk having that evidence dredged up under unfavorable circumstances. The first lesson of public relations is to tell the story on your own terms. If it’s a minor, insignificant story, mention it in passing, as a fact of no significance.

Let me put it another way. If it’s not a significant story, there’s no reason to hide it. If it’s hidden, reporters will suspect that's because it was significant. If the Pope has the sniffles, say that he has a cold. That’s not a headline story. But if you don’t admit that he has a cold, reporters will begin to think it’s pneumonia.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: tasha1996 - Feb. 15, 2013 11:41 PM ET USA

    The Vatican is correct in not disclosing the Pope's medical problems. There are such things as privacy and discretion. The Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy was not disclosed until she was hospitalized for hyperemesis . The Pope's illnesses are none of the media's business.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Feb. 15, 2013 11:23 PM ET USA

    I would argue, Phil, that since it is so routine, it's of no importance to report. Perhaps the Holy See thought that if they did report these insignificant instances when they happened, reporters would blow them out of proportion. You know, like a politician taking a swig of water in the middle of a speech.