There’s a line in the Paul Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, that Pope Francis and the Church needs to take note of. The context of its use in the movie is not important; it is the line that’s important. It’s a line I use when I am dealing with corporate clients who have got themselves into a mess of their own doing: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Pope Francis has a communication problem. The Church has a communication problem. And it needs to be fixed … and quickly.
As a conservative Catholic I am often alarmed by media reports of the Pope’s pronouncements while “out on the hustings”. But I don’t share the view of many other “hard right” Catholics that Francis I is a communist, an anti-pope, or even the anti-Christ. I quite like Francis because of his very humanity, because he is pastoral and often reminds the faithful of Christ’s call for us to be charitable. However, as a communications professional I am concerned that he is failing to communicate his messages clearly, and that is creating confusion both inside and outside the Church.
In the days when Pope John Paul II (St John Paul the Great) and Benedict XVI sat in the Chair of St Peter I often found myself having to defend the Church’s teachings on a range of social and moral issues to my non-Catholic friends. These days I find myself having to explain to non-Catholics and even to Catholics that the Church is not about to change its centuries old teachings on those same issues.
For example, I recently found myself in a debate with a liberal Catholic who was arguing that it was just a matter of time before the Church would allow the ordination of women and even of transgendered people, permit divorce, and sanction gay marriage. She said that while it may not happen during the reign of the current pope, “because of the conservative forces still entrenched and arraigned against him in the Vatican”, Pope Francis’ “liberal views” on homosexuality and divorce were paving the way for “the inevitable”. She proudly declared he was a pope for our times.
Sadly, this recent debate was not an exception. Worse, such debates are becoming more common because of Pope Francis’, off-the-cuff, statements. Those comments are emboldening liberal elements within the Church, enraging conservatives, and just causing confusion amongst many good Catholics who want clarity from the pontiff.
The editor of MercatorNet, Michael Cook, recently asked conservative Catholics who are concerned that many traditional teachings of the Church are being eroded by Francis’ remarks as reported in the media to “cut him some slack.”Cook blamed the media for the Pope’s predicament and suggested a “new press secretary” might be in order.
Cook may be on to something. But there is more to it than that, and more than just the Pope who needs help. Much of the Church’s hierarchy are not equipped for communication in today’s always-on world of the 24/7 news cycle and social media.
For example, I was horrified by Cardinal George Pell’s responses to questions from the Victorian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Since his appearance before the Commission I have found myself having to defend Pell’s statement that matters of child sexual abuse in the Church were of “no interest to me.” I’ve had to explain, including to many Catholics, that Cardinal Pell did not mean he didn’t care about the matter. His words were ill advised. I’ve had to explain that Pell meant to say he was not directly involved in the investigations into the allegations against priests in Ballarat at the time that he was an auxiliary bishop in Victoria.
Unfortunately Pell’s words were indeed his words and they easily leant themselves to the sensationalist headlines that made front-page news across Australia the next day. And they have helped solidify impressions many had of an uncaring, out of touch, Church hierarchy.
It’s time Pope Francis and the rest of the Church hierarchy took a leaf from the playbook of corporations. Companies hire public affairs consultants to help them avoid these types of “foot-in-mouth” problems. The Church should do the same.
MercatorNet’s editor was right to suggest that Francis should change his press secretary. But the answer is not to find another press secretary from amongst the cloistered priests and laymen of the Vatican, or even the wider Church. The problem with “in-house” press secretaries is that they are too close to their “bosses”. They know what they mean or are thinking when they say the wrong thing and often don’t notice or just let it go. Or perhaps they are just sycophantic “yes” men.
Public affairs consultants, on the other hand, come in as devil’s advocates and question what you are going to say; we put your intended words under acid and see if it burns. For example, I have worked with corporate executives before critical media interviews, court appearances and inquiries by parliaments and other government authorities to ensure they stay on message and are not taken out of context by the media.
The Pope’s press secretary has probably spent years in the Church, maybe working in the Vatican, or working with other like-minded good people. Living in such ivory towers they are not familiar with the ways of the corrupt and sinful world of the media. The Pope needs a cynic who will question his every word and who will keep him on message, preparing every word to be uttered before a public appearance. He needs someone who has worked at the coalface of tabloid journalism who will ask, “Can you imagine tomorrow’s headline, your Holiness, if you say it like that?”
True; my profession is not liked by many who see us as spivs and spin doctors. In truth we are neither: What we do is help our clients communicate clearly and consistently with carefully crafted messages and use of language. It might mean testing your messages and rehearsing them before uttering them in front of the headline hungry media. But at least the problems caused by the Pope’s ad hoc comments may be avoided.
People like me might be more mercenary than saint, but that’s exactly what the Pope needs by his side in today’s media environment. There is historical precedent; the Swiss Guard who have protected the Pope since the 15th Century started as mercenaries working for the royal families of Europe. In today’s media age the Holy Father needs a new kind of Swiss Guard to protect him … sadly, it has to be said, from himself.
Alistair Nicholas is Executive Vice President & Director, Special Projects – Australia at Powell Tate, a Washington DC-headquartered global public affairs agency.