It’s long been my pet peeve that, when organizations behave egregiously, they are said to have “a public relations problem.” Yet when they behave in exemplary ways, their actions are “merely public relations.” Thank god for the Catholic Church, which in recent weeks has demonstrated abundantly that “vile” behavior is simply that, not simply a failure to communicate.
To anyone who is following the Vatican’s blundered cover-up of systematic child rape within its clerical ranks (as Catholic author Andrew Sullivan characterizes the issue) and its tone-deaf response when caught with its collective cassock down, it’s clear that this 2,010 year-old institution has not caught up with modern crisis communication techniques, to say the most. You’d think that an institution that has institutionalized confession and forgiveness would have figured out by now that “mea culpa” is a lot more powerful than attacking the victims.
Yet that is exactly how the Vatican has responded. At Easter mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope hugged the dean of the College of Cardinals, who broke all traditions and inserted a “welcome” into the mass in defense of the Pope, calling charges against him “petty gossip,” part of a “vile” smear campaign orchestrated by biased media intent on weakening the papacy’s moral authority.
Many of my friends and colleagues know that I once spent a good deal of time and energy as a graduate seminar leader for Werner Erhard’s est training. (The work he began continues via today’s Landmark Education.) I remember being at an event that Erhard conducted at which someone asked why he had chosen to incorporate his organization as a for-profit rather than a not-for-profit entity.
He replied that for-profit organizations have the benefit of direct and immediate feedback from the marketplace. If they’re doing something of value, they survive. If not, they don’t. Since he wanted to provide value, Erhard said he wanted evidence for that. Not-for-profit organizations, he said, tend to lose sight of their missions and turn their attention to survival of the organization. Without the feedback of the marketplace, they tend to survive by focusing on survival. As a fully recovered former Catholic, forgive me if I shout “Bingo!”
There is a PR person working in the Vatican, believe it or not; Father Federico Lombardi, an Italian Jesuit, is the Vatican spokesperson. In an interview with Time, he pointed to the “speed and vastness as well as the expectations for response” from media and that “we have been late in learning this within certain ecclesiastical quarters.” Though some news reports about the situation have had “problems,” he’s clear that “we shouldn’t see it as a conspiracy or part of some calculated attack.”
So why is Lombardi’s advice not being taken? He reports to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, the #2 man who is, as Time reports, “an exponent of the conspiracy-against-the-Pope perspective on the crisis.” No, indeed, the Vatican does not “have a PR problem.”