May 2, 2010

Spinning Clerical Sex Abuse

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

I heard the legendary Howard Rubenstein speak many years ago at a Publishers Publicity Association luncheon. Rubenstein pretty much invented PR. He's brilliant, charming, and a compelling speaker in his own right. At that luncheon he mentioned that he had handled some of the PR for the Catholic Church. His agreement with them was that he wouldn't flack anything to do with the abortion issue because he was staunchly pro-choice. It just made me like him all the more. Something tells me Rubenstein was not retained by the Vatican to handle its response to this recent eruption of the sex abuse scandal. His fingerprints are definitely not all over this one. From a PR perspective, this has been a disaster.

When I asked John L Allen, the American Catholic commentator on the Vatican, why its media strategy was failing, he responded:

"As soon as I see that they have a strategy, I will answer you! The fact is, they don't have one, and that is where they are going wrong."

Indeed, the absence of a coherent media strategy is evident, as a variety of Vatican personalities take it upon themselves to respond publicly to the accusations.

They often do it in a defensive or denial mode, shooting the messenger, or denouncing a conspiracy against the Pope and the Catholic Church because of its moral stances on life, the family and bioethics.

Fr Federico Lombardi who heads up the Vatican's press and media has not been given a "mandate" to coordinate any sort of media strategy. So when various Vatican officials have taken it upon themselves to attack the messengers, blame gays and Jews, and cast the Pope as victim, it's not that they've wandered off script. They've been given no script. No coherent strategy means no coherent message... and frequent gaffes.

The cool remove of Pope Benedict has not helped. As I said here, we're just beginning to learn that he's been far more proactive on this issue than he's been given credit for. But his own lack of communicativeness -- he's never even met with Fr Lombardi to discuss the abuse crisis -- has contributed to this information gap. One hopes he won't be taking the advice he got recently from a colleague:

American rabbi, Shmuley Boteach had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday to encourage the Pontiff to encourage Catholic parents to eat dinner regularly with their children. A "Turn Friday Night into Family Night" as he called it would re-establish the Catholic pro-family image battered in the wake of recent priest sex abuse scandals, Boteach claimed.

"If the Church embraces an initiative like this, which is positive, it could put a lot of the scandal behind it,'" Boteach said. "People will see the Church doesn't just speak about opposition to gay marriage and abortion.'"

The phrase "putting lipstick on a pig" comes to mind. One expects that kind of cynical PR stunt from big corporations when their crimes against nature and humanity come to light. No doubt we'll start seeing ads from BP highlighting their newest environmental initiatives... as their massive oil spill overtakes wildlife in Florida and Louisiana. The Catholic Church announcing new pro-children initiatives in the wake of this scandal can't help but seem Orwellian.

A recent Catholic communications conference is somewhat encouraging.

With workshops such as "Benedict XVI, sexual abuse and The New York Times" on the program, it wasn't surprising that a conference of Catholic communicators in Rome provoked more interest than usual this year.

But those expecting a round of media-bashing were disappointed. Most of the April 26-28 discussion focused on how the church itself should be more transparent, more proactive in communicating and more journalist-friendly if it wants to get its message out on clerical sex abuse.

. . .

Pia de Solenni, a U.S. Catholic theologian and writer, said she was disturbed that some church officials seemed to exhibit "a sort of tone-deafness" in their defensive comments on sex abuse. She said it doesn't really help the church to describe itself as persecuted, or to say that because only a small percentage of priests commit abuse, "we're just about the same as others."

She said the church's message should focus on several key elements: asking forgiveness from the victims, accountability for those who have made mistakes and transparency in how cases have been handled. There are good models for this, including in the United States, but they need to be implemented in every diocese around the world, she said.

In other words a good PR strategy would involve much of what the Church has been unwilling to do.  It would have to come clean and confess its failings before the world. So a good PR strategy, as articulated at the communications conference, is also a strategy for what Vatican officials should be doing in the wake of seemingly endless revelations of abuse cases and their wretched mishandling.

There is talk that Pope Benedict will be doing just that.

Pope Benedict XVI may issue a mea culpa for the church's handling of clerical sexual abuse cases when he attends a meeting of the world's clergy in June, the Vatican official in charge of handling abuse cases said.

Cardinal William Levada also said he intended to hold up the U.S. policy dealing with abuse as a model for bishops around the word.

Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made the comments in an interview broadcast late Tuesday on U.S. public broadcaster PBS, his first interview since the scandal erupted several weeks ago.

From a public relations standpoint, June is a long way off as dioceses around the world are hemorrhaging headlines. Which is no doubt why rumors of the apology were leaked well in advance. That's called spin. At least they're finally spinning in the right direction.

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