Some PR advice for the Holy See

I think nearly everyone will agree that the Holy See needs a serious overhaul of its communications offices.

There is an article in Newsweek which addresses this issue.   You will disagree with some of the writer’s biases.  Move rapidly past those errors of judgment to what is of use in the article.

My emphases and comments.

Lisa Miller
How to Sell a Better Pope
Tips for the holy handlers

Published May 14, 2009
From the magazine issue dated May 25, 2009

I say this with respect: Pope Benedict XVI has a public-relations problem. You need only remember the 2000 visit of John Paul II to Jerusalem—which earned wall-to-wall cable coverage and produced the unforgettable image of the frail pope praying by the Western Wall—to know it’s true. Pope Benedict, by contrast, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial last week and in so doing turned what should have been a moment of transcendent grief into a small international brouhaha because he did not refer to his own German past and appeared to some in the Israeli press to be insensitive to the fates of 6 million Jews. Otherwise, Benedict’s Holy Land visit was largely ignored by the U.S. media. Benedict makes international news only when he does something thoughtless (like "reconciling" with a Holocaust-denying bish-op) [Just move along… nothing to see here folks, move along…. ] or when he fumbles in public, as he did on the plane to Cameroon in March when he awkwardly noted that AIDS "cannot be overcome by the  distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, they increase it." [Just keep reading…] This remark, though in keeping with his theology, reverberated in the media echo chamber for a week—overshadowing other stops that might have served him better, such as meeting with representatives of Cameroon’s Muslim community and a mass for as many as a million people in Angola. Benedict will never be John Paul, but why don’t he and his people do a better job—to be perfectly crass about it—marketing their message[The $64 question.]

Pope watchers answer this question in a number of ways. The pope is old, they say. [I don’t buy that.] "Imagine your grandfather or great-grandfather running a corporation," says James Martin, who works at the Jesuit magazine America. "He’s shy," offers George Weigel, the papal biographer who is also a newsweek contributor. [I don’t buy that.] "He also has a sense that the word of truth should have its own effect." [I the case of what Pope Benedict says and does, from his perspective, I think this is close to the target.] Weigel adds that Benedict’s predilection for scholarly introspection contributes to a management vacuum in which one department does not know what the other is doing; [I don’t think it is only introspection.  He has not chosen the best people to fill certain important positions.] this is exacerbated by the conviction within the Curia that "no news is good news." [Right.] Others criticize the Vatican itself, the structure of which is too entrenched and medieval to react to the realities of the 24-hour news cycle. (The Vatican Press Office closes for the day at 2:30.)  [This is definitely a problem.  A huge problem.]

These explanations may be true, but they’re insufficient. No one makes excuses for Rupert Murdoch because he’s 78. Benedict is the leader of a billion Roman Catholics. For two millennia the Catholic Church has arguably been the single most potent influence on Western culture. It has done great wrong, but it has also given us art and music, theology and philosophy, hospitals and universities, ethical approaches to some of the most complex social problems of our time. Why should a 21st-century pope not run a responsive and transparent communications operation? I asked a number of public-relations experts how they might advise the pope to improve his public image.

[Now we get to concrete ideas.] Get better handlers. This was the recommendation of Richard Wolff, a managing partner at Kreab Gavin Anderson consultants. "Maybe you need a broader and more effective surrogate structure when you have a leader who is less comfortable with the grand stage." Insiders say the head of the Vatican Press Office, a priest named Federico Lombardi, is both overworked (he also runs Vatican Radio) and too removed from the decision makers. Thus he can’t forestall crises—he can only mop up afterward. Rumors abound that Lombardi is about to be replaced; these he deflected in a recent interview with Zenit, a Catholic news service. "I have done this work with good will, and I will do it until they say otherwise," he said.  [This is an important point.  Fr. Lombardi could well have too much on his plate.  I think he also plays a role in the Jesuit curia, but I am not sure about that.  Any one of his roles would be more than a full-time job, frankly.  Who could humanly do that?]

Tell the story of the growing, vibrant global church. ["Tell the story"…] Susan King, who runs communications at the Carnegie Corporation, believes there’s a lot of good news to share: "Africa seems to me to be a story of the future, a story of tomorrow." Don’t make big international trips the occasion for intense cerebral debates, she says. "These are moments to celebrate … These are times to put into the public square the incredible values of the church."  [I can only go so far with that.  "Tell the story" is great advice.  However, I think there must be cerebral debate.]

Reposition the past. It’s hard to get beyond the "God’s Rottweiler" label, but Matthew Harrington, president of Edelman public relations, suggests that the Vatican talk up Benedict’s tenure as a professor at German universities during the 1960s. "He was known as this incredibly dynamic, vibrant, intellectual, open-minded individual." Harrington recommends that the pope convene "an Aspen Institute–like event," in which he shows his openness to opposing points of view.  [Sure!  Good idea.  Anyone who knew Joseph Ratzinger at all before his election know how profoundly stupid those mischaracterizations of him were.  It would be good for people to know who this Pope is.]

Be yourself. [That also means having cerebral debates, by the way…] Benedict got good reviews during his trip to New York City last year largely because he allowed the world to see his best side[his handlers allowed it… hey, wait!  There were Americans involved in that… hmmm….] gentle, compassionate and intellectually rigorous. He spoke about the sex-abuse crisis; he had a moving, unannounced meeting with some of the victims. "If people like you better, you can get a hell of a lot more done," [Amen.] says Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles publicist. [Here is what the secular types need to rememer… ] Obviously, being pope is not a popularity contest; Benedict has long seen his job as pastoring the global church, not pleasing the global media. But as recent months show, his indifference to his public image only hurts his cause[And that is what the ecclesiastical types need to understand.]

Miller is Newsweek’s Religion Editor.

Interesting points and helpful.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joseph says:

    Besides many other endearing sides, the Holy Father is no politician. He does not “play” the galleries or the public. I am immensely grateful for that. The truth speaks for itself always and those who do not want to hear, do not listen. He is a man without guile. I truly wish the rest of our hierarchy would take a leaf out of His book in this regard.

  2. michigancatholic says:

    I think we have to be very, very careful to avoid laying the church out as if it were an international corporation, sort of like PepsiCo or Toyota. People really, really want to see this branding, image thing happen and all the hype that goes with it, but I think it’s just misplaced completely. BTW, I was not a big fan of PJP2 kissing dirt, having concerts (replete with beaucoup liturgical abuses) and flying all over tarnation either.

    IF we manage to “brand” the church in this way, what will it mean to the individual Catholic? Will it be like a brand name tacked on his shirt pocket? What good does that do? Will it help his ability to be worthy of the Sacraments? Will it make it more likely that he grows deep in prayer? Will it help an authentic Catholic identity to take root in his soul? Really? Or will it make it more likely that he will covet the brand, slap it on his baseball cap, and then completely ignore the message (my bet is on this). (To wit, the post about the popularity ratings of Benedict XVI during “ND goes to hell” week.)

    New! Improved! Now with Stain-Fighting Power! Grrrr. No.

    The church is this big conveyance through time and is meant to be a vehicle for living out the gospel in an authentic God-given way, led by Tradition and Scripture and the Pope/Magisterium. Catholics in this age haven’t taken the time and effort to bring into this time ways to emphasize the properties of that conveyance so that it can properly work for a lot of people. Putting up a billboard is not going to connect people, if you get my drift. [This is a very modern mistake, too, and will lead to disillusionment. You watch.]

    Many Catholics note that there is a marked deficit in identity, catechesis, catholic and family life. This is where we must begin and we must use what tools work, which means teaching tools and building tools. Then we won’t have to think about “branding” the church to try to get our message across.

    Pope Benedict XVI is doing fine, God bless him. He’s A-OK in every way. I love it when he tells the truth and makes the press delirious. People just want to put him on a job improvement plan because they are, and misery loves company. Leave him alone and watch. He’s darned near perfect the way he is.

  3. michigancatholic says:

    And Joseph is right. WE have enough politicians and CEOs in our bishops. Pope Benedict XVI is a shepherd and he cares for us. It shows and we love him just like he is. [The press will carp about something no matter what. Who cares?]

  4. Let’s look at the bishops. What public relations issues are going on here at home? Outside of diocesan newspapers, is there significant positive public PR? Is the local PR better or worse than than done by the Church of Rome. In light of scandals and church closings, what are the realistic expectations? This would make an interesting case by case study. I’m not sure, however, that we can make a comparison here with the Pope. His office differs from that of the local bishop in quality and scope, etc.

  5. Mila says:

    But again, here is where our Catholic identity should come into play. It’s not either/or, but both/and. BXVI is a shepherd and the press will carp about something no matter what; they even did it with JPII. But why help them? Why not use the media to show the Holy Father at his best? Why always try to “explain away” what he says, as if it cannot be defended? It can and should. The Vatican spokesman should not be apologizing for what the Pope says, or making things up as he goes along in order to deny what was said.

    Perhaps Fr. Lombardi is really overwhelmed by so many responsibilities. Perhaps it might be good for the Holy See to go back to having a layman head the press office (perhaps Greg Burke could be enticed away from Fox News?). And yes, the press office needs to be brought into the XXI century, even if kicking and screaming. In a 24-hour news cycle world, it is absurd that the press office closes that early; and that’s not even mentioning how many days it does not open at all.

  6. michigancatholic says:

    Well, Mila, if we want to be serious about PR, then the first thing to do is what every single large international company does: haul all their people into the office and tell them to shut the H up, so that the public can have one source, and one source only, for information. Traverse that line and you have your walking papers. That’s how the big companies do it.

  7. Here’s a valuable link directly from Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., the head of the Vatican Press Office.

    This article places the Vatican PR issue into perspective. It’s actually quite good.

  8. Michigan Catholic said: “if we want to be serious about PR, then the first thing to do is what every single large international company does: haul all their people into the office and tell them to shut the H up, so that the public can have one source, and one source only, for information. Traverse that line and you have your walking papers. That’s how the big companies do it.”

    As a media relations professional for large international corporations for 20 years, Michigan Catholic is exactly right.

    How likely do you suppose, with individual priests running their parishes as mini-fifedoms, and bishops running their dioceses like… well…, plus without even one voice emanating from the diocesan curia itself.

    Nope. Not gonna happen. Too many men with too many opinions…

    Who have absolutely NO IDEA WHATSOEVER the insides of how the media works.

    Give interviews with certain expectations–many of them wrongheaded–and then complain about the results over and over again.

  9. Maureen says:

    Re: the corporate model

    I agree that the business corporation model is not what the Church wants to copy. OTOH, our pope is an Augustinian, and Augustine insisted that all good, true ideas belong to the Church by right. So I’m sure B16 would not be averse to baptizing corporate ideas that fit in. :)

    Giant pain that it might be in Rome, I’m sure that if you pay people enough or find the right group of people, you could have a 24-hour rapid response Vatican press office. Even if the night shift were in Japan.

  10. michigancatholic says:

    Fr Kevin,

    If anything, the bishops run a negative PR program as far as the public square goes, and a neutral one (which means none) as far as the Catholic public goes.

    They have it in their heads that in the Catholic world, they run some kind of exclusive concession and don’t have to do anything, worthwhile or not; whilst in the public square, their ignorance shows because they think that everyone cares what they do.

    Trust me, most non-Catholics don’t know where the nearest parish is or who the bishop is. [I’m a convert; I know this.] They don’t care–until they get torqued up because they hear about some little kid getting messed up by a priest. It’s that attention thing–if everything that crosses your consciousness about X is Y, that’s all you think about X and conclusions follow, right or wrong.

    I’ve heard it said that the bishops are motivated by wanting to be loved and having it thought of them that they are “intellectual.” I’m still laughing.

  11. Katie says:

    I think one of the problems is that the Pope might like to get rid of all sorts of people in the Curia but this is not always easy. After all he knows them very well from having no end of fights when he was at the CDF. But you can’t just fire them. If you move them, they might do worse things in the place you move them to. And they can’t all be made nuncios to Chad. There is a shortage of talent. The reliable ones are frequently not bright and the bright ones are frequently unreliable. Many Italian Catholics including clergy and bishops have a view of the U.S. which is akin to that of Hamas.

  12. Thomas Gillespie says:

    The Pope should hire some U.S. Marine Corps public affairs specialists. Harry Truman was know to have remarked that the Corps has “a propaganda machine that rivals Stalin’s” – the only difference being that the Corps’ rests on a substratum of real battlefield valor.

  13. michigancatholic says:

    “…they can’t all be made nuncios to Chad.” Why not?

    I don’t really believe all that about a shortage of talent. I’m not seeing much talent now, and I can’t believe that, overall, a new group would be worse, frankly.

  14. Ricky Vines says:

    There is nothing crass about using marketing techniques in proclaiming the Gospel; that’s how
    the saints did it in the past e.g. St. John Bosco was instructed in a vision to show the beauty or
    virtue and the ugliness of sin. That is the difference of the Salesian preventive system vs.
    the brimstone and hellfire approach of the repressive system. That produced close to 40+ canonized
    saints since 1888. I’ve been seeing some of this in the Catholics Come Home and the Pro-life
    Imagine the Potential presentations. So, the Church knows. Now if the Vatican can hire a good
    publicist, maybe those guys from CMR then they’ll have less problems. That and extending the
    press office work day to 24X6.

  15. Mark says:

    Forget “better” handlers! How about just no handlers!? The pope isnt some sort of dancing circus bear! He should get rid of the bureaucracy, and learn to surf the net himself. Or, at least, next time they should hire someone who is savvy that way. He could also be more hands on. I knew two editors at different newspapers. One, upon promotion, spent all day in his office doing “editor” stuff. The other insisted on keeping his desk in the newsroom and even still occasionally went out and wrote stories himself. The Pope should come down from his tower and work the floor. Have each department give him a daily briefing, get a really direct attack-dog “chief of staff” or something. And stop talking “through” people. Forget the decorum, maybe the Pope should have a weekly press conference. He isnt some figurehead royal, he’s a real leader. If the POTUS does that, he could too. He has 24-hours in his day as anyone else.

  16. Maureen says:

    I think that this pope knows exactly what he is doing in terms of his message and the PR surrounding it. The longer term responses to his controversial actions are most probably the very ones that he hopes to evoke.

  17. Sal says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with Pope Benedict’s public image.

    It’s crass and unbecoming to put the Church’s message in terms of marketing and branding, as though the Church and some advertising agency were remotely similar. Evangelicals do this and we’ve seen the results: it just makes their message, such as it is, irrelevant.

    This kind of article makes me long for pre-Conciliar days, when the Pope was a “prisoner” of the Vatican. At least then, people had a modicum of respect for him and didn’t offer fatuous advice.

  18. Hidden One says:

    Just out of curiousity, where can we commenters on WDTPRS find consensus-level agreement on the issue of Vatican and related PR? What do we agree on?

    So far, the only thing I can pick out is that the Vatican Press Office should be open an awful lot more.

  19. Rose says:

    While I do think the matter of the Holocaust denying bishop could have been handled better. Lisa Miller’s thesis is somewhat “self-serving” and makes excuses for her profession. If she calls this a PR issue, one can reasonably deduce that she thinks the Pope and his message are more than what the press has made them out to be…and if that is her conclusion, what is there to stop her from discarding the superficial PR and writing about the truth? I often wonder what justifies having to feed the media bias, except that a good name in the world” makes us all reading the press feel less desolate and embattled and proud….me included. However, it may be that she as a journalist wants the Pope to “sell” and this Pope’s message and persona do not “sell” in the ways of the world. It almost seems as if PR has become a power parallel to the truth instead of in service to the truth. However, her article is useful in saying that for the Church’s message to spread, ie. for evangelization, channels of “communication” are required. And one must use all channels relevant to the age. In all seriousness, I think Pope Benedict XVI is well aware that the media has its preconceptions of him (from long experience) and he uses them to his own purpose (he hopes, I am sure, that amid the brouhaha, truth will emerge and some people will hear it. I read somewhere that no Papal writing had ever been read as extensively as the Regensberg address.) Interesting that today, the Pope called youth to evangelize through the internet. On the internet, this most modern of Popes actually understands that the power to discern is given back to the people (at least for now) and you can cut through the institutional media bias. Interesting too that Lisa Miller says “If someone likes you…” The press has never liked Papa Ratzinger and that will never change. I give Lisa Miller high marks though for writing about the subject.

  20. Paul M says:

    …….Many Catholics note that there is a marked deficit in identity, catechesis, catholic and family life. This is where we must begin and we must use what tools work, which means teaching tools and building tools. Then we won’t have to think about “branding” the church to try to get our message across……..
    michigan catholic et al,

    Just to be clear, “branding” happens whether you like it or not and that goes for companies as well as the Church. Branding is essentially a person’s “gut feeling” about a company (or the Church). Companies (or the Church) cannot control the process, but they can influence it. Because of that, people like the writer of the article, tend to focus on the eternals like PR, etc. This really misses the mark as the focus becomes reactive. To really influence people and create a great brand, you need to start with 3 simple questions:
    1. Who are we?
    2. What do we do? In the case of the Church, what do we believe? AND what do we do because of our beliefs?
    3. Why does it matter?

    Now it becomes clear why the Catholic “brand” is in such trouble and why the Holy Father and Fr. Z keep pounding on Catholic identity. Read any of BXVI’s talks or Fr. Z’s posts on Catholic identity and you can get the answers to all 3 questions. Trouble is, not all Catholics really believe those answers. Even worse is that so many bishops don’t seem to, or, if they do, are unwilling to take a strong public position. The ND controversy is typical: I think less than 25% of US bishops spoke out publicly for the authentic Catholic position.

    Gotta run, but one last comment. As you can probably tell, I completely concur that the key is re-establishing Catholic identity and focusing on the basics like liturgy, catechesis and formation. michigan catholic totally hit that in the excerpt I copied.

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for being on the tip of the spear.

  21. Jacob says:

    While I agree with the point that the Church should not become a ‘PR machine’ intent on spinning everything through publicists and the like, I would offer a few concrete suggestions that I think would help out immensely:

    Create a dicastery specifically to handle the Vatican’s media organs (the press office, Vatican Radio, the paper, the main website, etc.) and that has oversight in other places (I’m thinking specifically about the Jesuit journal with final approval of articles by the Secretariat of State).

    Each dicastery could maintain its own organs and publications, but ‘Holy See’ stuff could at least be focused in one place with dedicated personnel so that no one man is burdened with overseeing totally independent offices that often work at cross purposes.

    And there would be the added benefit of having an independent dicastery with its own cardinal prefect would be quite interested in saving his portfolio from the machinations of the Secretariat and whose efforts would be directly overseen by the Pope and his loyalists.

  22. James A. says:

    I nominate Fr. Z to be the new Vatican spokesman ! There would be little in the way of mixed messages then !

  23. Hidden One says:

    I wonder if Fr. Z. would want the position.

  24. Andreas says:

    A better PR to promote the Gospel? How about some fisherman handling the job? Oh, wait: not sophisticated enough, right?

  25. ckdexterhaven says:

    I agree with a lot of the advice. We DO live in a 24 hour world, and when you’re closing at 2:30… stories get away from you.

    The part about people like the Pope, that’s spot on! I feel like America “got to know him” last spring. I still remember him at the youth Mass saying.. ‘Haff courage”. The Vatican’s Press Office isn’t serving the man, or the Church well.

  26. clara says:

    Whenever I am told to sell myself I answer
    “I am neither a slave or a prostitute”.
    I couldn´t agree more with Andreas´comment on the Lord´s choice of fishermen as His Apostles.

  27. wmeyer says:

    I am appalled to learn that George Weigel believes Pope Benedict to be shy.

    Having read the Pope’s encyclicals, and a few of his books, I believe what Mr. Weigel identifies as shyness is Pope Benedict’s profound humility.

    Perhaps Mr. Weigel simply has spent too much time in close proximity to the D.C. area, and would benefit from getting out among the rest of us for a time, as a break from the morally bankrupt majority there.

    Would that more leaders were as thoughtful as Pope Benedict before making statements.

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