The Vatican’s real communication problem
In many respects, the reaction was correct. As an experienced professional with Fox News and Time, and a serious Catholic, Greg Burke is an excellent choice for a tough assignment. (Disclosure: he’s also an old friend.) But the question remains: Will he be permitted to do the job? Neither Burke nor anyone else can be of much help to the Roman Curia unless it’s open to being helped.
Goodness knows the Vatican needs PR assistance. Recent disasters have included an embarrassing series of leaked documents, seemingly evidence of serious conflict within the Curia (the Pope’s butler is said to have purloined the documents but few believe that he’s the only one involved); the unceremonious sacking of the Vatican bank head amid a jarring torrent of personal abuse; and fumbled communication about apparently snarled negotiations with the Lebebvrist Society of St. Pius X.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As anyone even casually familiar with the situation realizes, the underlying problems in Rome go deeper and have existed for years.
Burke is eminently well qualified to tell his new employers what the problems are and what should be done. What isn’t so clear is whether they’ll listen and act.
During three decades spent directing public relations at the national and international levels for several Catholic organizations including the American bishops’ conference, I found that people at the top not infrequently imagine that good public relations is a matter of technique. Push a couple of buttons, do a little tweaking here and there, and behold—your previously tarnished image will glow.
Good technique is certainly important in communication, but seldom are problems like the Vatican’s only or mainly failures of technique. Instead they’re problems of attitude and philosophy. In the case of the Vatican, the difficulties tend to be the bitter fruit of an entrenched clericalist culture linked to a similarly entrenched reliance on secrecy as a routine management tool. The result is a counterproductive approach to communication and media that lies far beyond correction simply by tweaking and technique. [More]