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Can smart PR deliver public absolution for the pope and Vatican?

Apr 13, 2010
Reprinted from www.ragan.com
By Vanessa Horwell
A Web 2.0 world is watching as scandal rocks the Catholic Church, all the way to the Holy See

Writing about the Vatican, the pope and religion—today or at any time—without mention of politics or moral judgment is a hard call. Hard because religion, morality and politics are inherently intertwined, whether we like it that way or even realize it. And that is why discussions about these topics are polarizing, divisive and downright destructive in so many ways.

So this article isn’t going to take on those issues prima facie but instead will look at the Vatican and its current PR crisis—perhaps the most damaging, but really just the latest in a long series of PR crises.

The differences between the PR crisis arising from the sex-abuse scandal and previous scandals—think indulgences, celibacy, and female laity—are twofold. First, it is taking place in an information-dominated era, in which previously effective mitigation tactics such as stifling inquiry and withholding pertinent data are impossible. Second, the current crisis has trust (or the breaking thereof) at its very center, which makes any sort of response inherently suspect.

Same story, different era

I recall the stories I heard as a youth about numerous Church scandals detailing cover-ups of abuse and unspeakable acts made by local priests all the way up to archbishops and the Vatican itself, hushed up to protect the sanctity and reputation of an institution that has sought to teach mankind to act in exactly the opposite ways of its clergy and representatives.

That’s a very big PR quandary. How can the Church or Pope Benedict XVI hope or begin to rebuild the public’s trust through any PR effort when the institution’s very mission is the codification and enforcement of morality? In other words, how does a moral authority, stripped of its authority through moral failing, regain either?

A recent article in The New York Times refers to the problem as “morality credibility,” and this is where the Vatican’s press office and the pope have to adjust their PR and communications strategy. Their message is no longer credible because their actions belie their—ahem—preachings. Effective PR can do a great many things to influence and shape public perception, but it can’t perform miracles, not even for the Holy See.

As the Church’s PR crisis perpetuates with no end in sight, the public has grown weary of hearing the same spiel over and over… that the church didn’t know, that it is being dealt with, that it didn’t happen, or just plain silence.  Even if the public accepts that the Church is an antiquated institution steeped in traditions of secrecy and confidentiality, excuses, denials and stonewalling still seem incredible—and incredibly insensitive.

Pope Benedict finds himself in a highly untenable position, so much more difficult than, say, Pope John Paul II did in 1981 when he caused a stir with his assertion that a husband commits adultery by looking lustfully at his wife. Yes, it was a milder scandal by far, but the media landscape has also irrevocably changed.  The Church and its press office are no longer in control of the message nor, indeed, the congregations the Church once controlled. The American Catholic is as likely to be a devout twitterer as a devout parishioner, and possibly both. The Church’s monolithic monopoly on information, partially dismantled by Vatican II, has been demolished by Web 2.0.

What the Church needs to do now is to become relevant and repentant.

The Pope’s efforts to curtail this crisis, from a PR perspective, have been lacking, not least because the former Cardinal Ratzinger himself has become the focus of criticism. It is hard to be effective or authentic in issuing denials or shifting blame to underlings when your former office could be culpable. Yet as the head of the Church with no one to remove him but the Almighty himself, it falls on the Pope to do what he can.

PR Redemption

We live in unforgiving times, with instant gratification and schadenfreude often trumping absolution.  Still, the old publicist’s truism—that the only thing the mob loves more than a scandal is redemption—is as relevant today as it ever was. The Church needs to recognize this modern phenomenon, and this is where PR can come to its salvation.

Through relevant and authentic messaging that is reflective of a shift in attitude within the Vatican, along with Pope Benedict’s determination to right decades of wrongs publicly, the Church can, like the proverbial physician, heal itself. The Church needs to revise its centuries-old secrecy protocols: The Pope should go on Oprah and publicly apologize. Seriously.

If the Vatican is genuine about acknowledging its mistakes and finally acting upon them, it has to do so in a very public way. There will be some humbling—apologies call for that—but the only PR strategy that’s going to work for the Vatican and any Pope from this day forward is one that involves visible repentance and action, coupling official acknowledgement of wrongdoing with making real amends and substantive changes.

That’s a papal legacy both the Church and its laity can live with.

For the First Church, the Pope and his press office to achieve these ends, they need look no further than to a few PR Commandments for guidance:

Thou Shalt Not Play the Blame Game. Neither the media, nor the laity, nor the public, nor the modern era molested children. The truth is the truth is the truth, and any attempt to turn the tables on them will smack of desperation. Pointing fingers is a bad PR tactic for anyone.

Thou Shalt Go to the Confessional Booth. It’s time to fess up, all ye sinners. The Church needs to shun its tradition of “sweeping nasty things under the carpet,” of buying people off and of keeping mum. The public is hungry for an explanation but, more important, a sincere, heartfelt apology—finally.

Thou Shalt Recognize that We Live in Different Times. When Sinead O’Connor tells the world to stop going to Mass, the Holy See should take this as a sign of the times. Millions are moved by messages on Twitter, and while the pope is trying to tweet his way to absolution, the Church needs to take pop culture very seriously in its communications strategy. It cannot be ignored.

Thou Shalt Not Hide Behind Diplomatic Immunity. No one is above the law. Period.

Thou Shalt Not Seek Pity. The media and public’s backlash is particularly severe this time because, quite frankly, they are sick of hearing the same line. The Church is in an unenviable position, but entirely of its own doing. Forget the pity party. The road to forgiveness will be a very long one, but it’s not insurmountable—with the right approach.

At the end of the day, however, Pope Benedict’s actions will speak louder than words.

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at vanessa@thinkinkpr.com.

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