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Issue Date:  December 10, 2004

Is church getting bad advice on media?

When PR is left to lawyers, diocesan image will suffer


The morning headline in a Midwestern daily newspaper recently read, “Diocese lax in case of priest, group says.”

The story cited criticism by a national victims’ advocacy group of a Catholic diocese for failing to do more about a priest who left a pedophile treatment center to live in a residential area near an elementary school. Four pending lawsuits name the priest as a molester of boys during the 1970s and 1980s.

The article said the director of the advocacy group had e-mailed a letter to the diocese’s bishop, accusing him of shirking his responsibility. The group sent a copy to the reporter who wrote the story.

What could the diocese have done to change the content and tone of the story as well as the headline? Plenty, and the fact that it did nothing reinforces the notion that when it comes to the media, dioceses are being poorly advised.

The spokesperson for the diocese, named in the newspaper story, is a lawyer, and that’s part of the problem. Lawyers are usually smart people and know much about the law, but have no particular expertise in dealing with the media. In fact, in my career as a reporter and editor, I found that corporations, governments and organizations often bought themselves messy media misery by listening to lawyers.

Lawyers think about what is best in litigation, and publicity of any kind complicates their jobs. Problem is, they often believe that not talking to the media, or being evasive, will make a story go away. It rarely does. Instead, the story is written or broadcast without proper input from the lawyer’s client, and it inevitably turns out worse for the client.

Unfortunately, dioceses -- and many other organizations, businesses and governments -- are eager to take media advice from lawyers. Lawyers usually urge secrecy, persuading their clients that “no news is good news,” that publicity of any kind will hurt the diocese’s reputation and wind up costing the diocese more money in lawyer and court fees. It plays into the common presumption that the media “is out to get” the church, that media representatives are dishonest at best and hostile at worst.

The result is that dioceses usually have as little contact as possible with the media and are almost always reacting to news reports initiated by others. Their spokespersons reluctantly answer questions from reporters if absolutely necessary, and the resulting news articles and broadcasts almost never place the diocese, and the church as a whole, in a good light.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are six tips that would make the kind of story mentioned above much less likely, and “positive” stories about dioceses and the church much more likely:

  • Cultivate good relationships with the media, and with individual reporters who are likely to cover them. The vast majority are people of good will.
  • Get out in front of anticipated bad news. Initiate contact with the media, getting the news to them first, along with the desired message.
  • Be open and honest and strive to be perceived as an organization that has nothing to hide.
  • Be accessible to the media at all times. Never say, “No comment,” and always be friendly and positive.
  • Create one to three key messages to be delivered, and stick to them. If during an interview you can’t answer a question directly, repeat your messages.
  • Rely on lawyers for questions of the law. Get a good media person or consultant, and listen to him or her, for questions of dealing with the media.

So, how do I know that the story, and the headline, in the article mentioned above would be different if these tips were followed? Because I went to the newspaper’s newsroom, sought out the reporter who wrote the story and asked her.

The diocese in question has a history of “stonewalling” her, she said, of providing as little information as possible and only when it feels obligated to do so. The bishop of the diocese, which has received lots of negative articles about its handling of priests accused of pedophilia, has never talked to the reporter -- even though she covers religion exclusively and represents the biggest and most influential newspaper in the state.

The chancellor of the diocese is a lawyer, she says, and the people who have had the most influence in crafting the diocese’s response to the pedophilia publicity have also been lawyers. Indeed, the response to the story mentioned above was by a lawyer, speaking for the diocese instead of the normal diocesan spokesperson.

Had she received the news of the advocacy-group criticism from the diocese, along with its messages, the reporter said, the lead of the story would have been the diocese’s message about it, not that a group is once again criticizing the diocese.

And the headline, she says, would have been something like, “Diocese defends its handling of accused priest,” or even, “Diocese says it does all it can to protect children.”

That would have made a big difference in the public perception of the diocese, and of the church. And the perception that the church is a manifestation of Christ in the world is arguably as important as the reality. Christ himself was interested in perception as well as message. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked his disciples.

Former priest Tom Carney was an editor and writer for The Des Moines Register for 22 years. He is now a media consultant in Des Moines.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

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