Spinning the Vatican’s new spin man

During one of my newspaper internships, I helped compile a list of data from houses of worship around the city for a church directory. You would not believe the number of bizarrely awful websites we came across, from the flashy purple and gold to the blogspot templates people still use.

Sure, religious leaders may not see a website as a place to invest a lot of money in, but you would think they would offer the who, what, where, when, why, how on the home page, or at least some where within the website. In many ways, churches face a PR problem.

The Vatican is no stranger to PR issues, and when you’re translating thousands of years of doctrine from Italy to (many Amerocentric) journalists, you can see tensions pretty quickly. For one, I chuckled a little over the critique (right) over its website.

The Vatican made a move last week that might mitigate some of the issues in the future by appointing Fox correspondent Greg Burke as its senior communication adviser.

Lombardi confirmed the news after the AP broke the story, several days before the Holy See had planned to announce it officially.

Do people (average readers, not journalists) still care who broke a story? It’s probably important to the AP being a wire service, but I find lines like this in stories a little weird, considering people generally forget the source of a story (Facebook? Twitter, maybe?).

The Vatican has been bedeviled by communications blunders ever since Benedict’s 2005 election, and is currently dealing with a scandal over Vatican documents that were leaked to Italian journalists. While the scandal is serious — Benedict himself convened a special meeting of cardinals Saturday to try to cope with it — the Vatican’s communications problems long predate it.

It seems odd to date PR blunders to Pope Benedict XVI’s election, considering people might argue the Catholic church has had media problems for quite some time that didn’t start on “election day.” The Catholic church isn’t like the American presidency, where you might say someone’s administration did such and such. The office of the pope doesn’t really translate in those kinds of media boxes, right?

Benedict’s now-infamous speech about Muslims and violence, his 2009 decision to rehabilitate a schismatic bishop who denied the Holocaust, and the Vatican’s response to the 2010 explosion of the sex abuse scandal are just a few of the blunders that have tarnished Benedict’s papacy.

I don’t understand how the explosion of the sex abuse scandal can be dated to 2010. Yes, there were a lot of new reports that year, but doesn’t the issue go way further back?

The new spokesperson is a member of Opus Dei, prompting this point of connection from the reporter:

Brown wrote “The Da Vinci Code,” the best-selling fictional account that portrayed Opus Dei — of which Bertone’s new communications adviser is a member — as being at the root of an international Catholic conspiracy.

Don’t get me wrong: I read the book and saw the movie like everyone else, but is it still in cultural conversation? Not that I can tell. Is this a stretch to make a connection to the reader?

“I’m an old-fashioned Midwestern Catholic whose mother went to Mass every day,” Burke said. “Am I being hired because I’m in Opus Dei?” he asked. “It might come into play.” But he noted he was also in Opus when he was hired by Fox and Time magazine.

You know how we hate it when reporters vaguely mention someone goes to a “conservative Christian church” instead of just naming the church? I extend that analogy to letting this Midwestern mention slide without being more specific. I realize the media sees the world in terms of what’s happening in New York, D.C., L.A. and then anything in between is sort of a blur, maybe Chicago, but that’s about it.

On a larger note, though, I wish the piece would give us more specifics rather than interpretation of what the perception has been. Or, if reporters want to write about perception, use surveys to show how people’s view of the Catholic Church has changed over time. Otherwise, this story alone feels a little inside baseball.

Image via Greg Kandra.

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  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Benedict’s now-infamous speech about Muslims and violence, his 2009 decision to rehabilitate a schismatic bishop who denied the Holocaust, and the Vatican’s response to the 2010 explosion of the sex abuse scandal are just a few of the blunders that have tarnished Benedict’s papacy.

    Are these actions themselves blunders? That can be debated for two of them at least. The blunders, perhaps implied but grammatically unclear, are the way the Vatican handled the way the media sensationalized these events.

    One of the “problems” with the Vatican and its PR strategy is this (it seems to me anyway): When one worries too much about PR, one begins taking actions and saying things precisely for the PR value, and PR suddenly becomes the end for which one does what one does. So the Vatican acts in accord with the content of the action (hence the debatable nature of the “blunders” above), even if it is unpopular or sensationalized negatively by the media. And that is something the mainstream media simply cannot understand. But the Vatican admittedly does not respond well, and it ought to. What the Vatican needs is balance — sharp, capable PR people who can work PR well, but who nonetheless respect the notion that PR should be what drives policy. Hopefully, the new guy is just the ticket.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    “The Da Vinci Code” may not be terribly current, true, but it’s the last time I can recall that Opus Dei was actually in the “cultural conversation”…

  • Suzanne

    Thought Godbeat pro Tim Townsend did a good profile on this native St. Louisan: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/st-louisan-to-guide-vatican-message/article_02544a1f-493b-53a9-91a9-baadc629059a.html

    (and this being St. Louis, he made sure we knew where he went to high school :) )

  • Thinkling

    CNN did a piece on Burke’s appointment that used Brown’s book as the only reference source for background on Opus Dei. Talk anout journalism fail. This piece is not that much better in that regard.

    AB, I think your penultimate sentence should end “PR should not be what drives policy.” Otherwise pretty much in agreement.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Thinkling, YES, thank you for pointing that out.

  • Julia

    Yes, Tim’s piece in the St Louis Post Dispatch was better than most.

    his 2009 decision to rehabilitate a schismatic bishop who denied the Holocaust,

    Benedict needs somebody who is going to see right off what the secular media is going to make of the lifting of an excommunication so that talks can begin with a dissident group. This is not a rehabilitation, but the folks involved are not realizing that’s what the press will see. These guys are still not rehabilitated after continuous talks since that 2009 event.

    I’m 67 and can remember when there was almost no coverage of Catholic Church matters in the press. In this era of 24/7 news, the outlets need content and suddenly all these inside baseball events are being covered. It’s like US sports reporters covering cricket matches.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Not to mention that the Pope did NOT make a “speech about Muslims and violence”. The “news” media manufactured that story by “reporting” on one paragraph in an address on “Faith and Reason”.

  • Julia

    BTW I have always hated that faux parchment background at the Vatican website. It makes documents very difficult to read. Maybe Greg could point out that it helps to be user friendly if you want people to actually use your website.

    The guy who did the critique of the Vatican website should be hired to re-do it.

  • Jon in the Nati

    While I agree strongly with AuthenticBioethics that the things often thought of as “blunders” are not in any way blunders. I’m fairly certain the Holy Father says what he means and means what he says, at least most of the time. What happens is that his remarks are often not well-received in some quarters, or are misunderstood or distorted, and then church officials do not respond in exactly the way some people might like, such as by clarifying or backpedaling. That is how these things become “blunders”.

    The above notwithstanding, however, the Vatican (or, more properly, the people within it assigned to handle such matters) do seem to have had trouble communicating with the secular media at times. I recall reading (I think on Whispers in the Loggia) that many of the offices in the Vatican do not have Internet access, and that some high-ranking church officials and their aides do not have Blackberrys or anything like that. If this is true, it does explain this stuff a little bit.

    And yes, that website is pretty bad, although the commentary is not particularly insightful either.

  • Julia

    Watching cable news dealing with the S Ct decision on health care and the vote on the contempt vote – it occurs to me that politicians in democracies want to make sure their spin gets out because they need votes to stay in power. That’s not the case with the folks associated with the Vatican. However, if they want to win over the minds and hearts of their followers and just curious people, they also need to get out where they are coming from. That takes bucks and there actually aren’t as many bucks available for that kind of press apparatus as people might think.
    The Vatican operates more like a university with seminars and presentations of learned books and convocations with scholars from around the world. The press doesn’t pay much attention to the internal workings of universities, but they do with the Vatican because it’s perceived as a political entity.
    Because of its thousand + year existence as the political remnant of the Roman Empire in central Italy when nothing else was holding together, the Vatican apparatus is sui generis. It doesn’t know quite how to behave since that style of existence ended with the reunification of Italy in the 1800s, but it seems the rest of the world is not quite certain how to relate to the Vatican in its new situation, either.
    Those who don’t know much about the history of Italy won’t understand what I’m talking about. But those who do must realize the Vatican is still getting used to its relatively new position in the world. It appears that there is an attempt at de-Italianization taking place which explains a lot.
    Benedict has shown a liking for the straight-forwardness of the Americans. Burke has a lot on his plate.
    SEE http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350278?eng=y

  • http://Cotlb.blogspot.com Julie

    From that last block quote: “he was also in Opus when”?? “In Opus”? That’s a new one to me. I’ve never ever heard anyone refer to Opus Dei as simply Opus. Is this a thing or is the reporter trying to get hep with the kids?

  • Alejo

    Mentioning the Da Vinci Code makes no sense to me whatsoever. Without a qualifier it sounds as if the writer of this piece is pointing to Dan Brown’s novel as an accurate, or at least fair, portrayal of Opus Dei. It’s better to just briefly explain Opus Dei. Something like “It is an international Catholic organization of lay people and clergy, including non-Catholics, founded in 1930′s Spain which seeks to help its members live a more devoted religious life.” That’s it. No political terms like “conservative” or ambigious ones like “traditional” needed. It’s much better than bringing in images of Dan Brown’s fanciful novel.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    As the Vatican assesses and refines is public relations apparatus, it must be kept in mind that clarity and a felicitous way of expressing ideas is one thing, and the content of what is expressed is another. If society doesn’t like or want to hear what the Church has to say, then saying it well will not stop adversarial media from being critical.

    And yet the Church still has the duty to say it; some people will get ticked off by it; the press will take note of that reaction; and because it opposes public opinion (as reported by the media), it will be labeled inept PR and a blunder.

    So it is unlikely that the Church will ever have what the world would judge to be an effective PR team, as long as it keeps true to its mission.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    That’s a new one to me. I’ve never ever heard anyone refer to Opus Dei as simply Opus. Is this a thing or is the reporter trying to get hep with the kids?

    Or he has no idea that the name MEANS something in furrin?

    ROMANES EUNT DOMUS!

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    ah, credo quod id est: Ite domum, Romanes. Sed non imus usquam.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Um… I was comparing the writer with Our Hero in:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cVa0YYSMIQ&feature=player_embedded

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    OK, all in good fun. And at any rate, my kids tell me I goofed. It’s “Romani” not “Romanes.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  • Julia

    Will:

    What’s with the video of the belly dancer?


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