When PR must be about more than words

1 Apr

No PR pro likes the word “spin,” (by contrast, I think some of us use the word “flack” with some pride, if not humor). To spin is to lie. Most of us view our work not as truth-bending, but as getting our side of the story out.

Nearly all of the time, even in the toughest crisis, we are comfortable with that. Our organization may have made a mistake, and we’re ready to admit it. More often than not, our side of the story is more complicated, and it takes some work to explain it. When we do our jobs well, our organizations may not be loved, but understood and sometimes even forgiven.

What happens, though, when we are asked to lie? In grad school, there was one ethics question that we all found easy to answer. What would you do if your executive asked you to do something unethical or even illegal? Let’s say, for example, that we were asked to hide the truth about illegal accounting practices. We all agreed that we would resign, even if it meant putting our families at risk. Before taking that step, though, we believed it was our responsibility to try to change the system.

Public relations is not just about trying to put a good face on a bad situation; it’s also about trying to help the organization’s leaders understand what the public believes the organization should be and to use that information to persuade them to change the organization so that it can best serve the public.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the Roman Catholic Church’s latest sexual-abuse scandal unfolds. This is an organization that for centuries has relied on words delivered via an old-school one-way communications model and without any channel conflict. But, today, words not only travel farther and faster than ever, they also reverberate and boomerang in nanoseconds. On their return, they are often refuted, laced with criticism, contradicted by new facts, and edged with anger. And these additional  words are coming not from the media, but from the flock.

The problem here is that the rock on which the Church was founded – its moral authority – has been called into question. Can it still function as a moral leader when it has admitted to choosing the well-being of pedophiles over the safety of children? Can it still guide the flock when many of the conditions that allowed pedophiles to flourish within the church structure haven’t changed substantially?

People are quick to point to celibacy as a reason for the many cases of child abuse facing the church. Others call for the ordaining of women to bring greater sensitivity to the old boy’s club. Both of these situations may be contributing factors to the crisis the church faces. But the problem runs deeper. The fact is that the church has created a safe and opportune environment that makes priesthood highly attractive to pedophiles.

People are smart, and sometimes as leaders and PR pros, we fail to see that. They always see through our stories, and they expect more of us, of our leaders. They expect us to do the right, moral thing. And sometimes, an apology simply isn’t enough. Sometimes real organizational change is required.

If I were the pope’s flack, here’s what I’d tell him:

Church policies have put children at risk and prioritized bad priests over innocents. Public discourse has changed more in the last ten years than the last 2000; people are no longer influenced only by you or those you think are your enemies (i.e. the media). And Catholics don’t need the media to tell them that pedophilia is morally wrong or aiding and abetting criminals is also morally wrong; after all, the Church has been teaching them how to recognize sin for more than 2000 years.

As a result, the church’s reputation is in danger and the long-term viability of the institution itself is threatened. You can continue to make apologies, but words will eventually lose their impact, especially as more accusations are made. To protect the church and the flock, you must take meaningful action.

Open up the church’s secrecy and make the inner workings of the church explicit and transparent. Work openly and in conjunction with law enforcement and abide by local laws. Appoint a governing body comprised of church leadership and laity, include both men and women, and give them all equal power. Write and enforce new church policies that exact harsh consequences for priests who commit the sin of pedophilia and for those church leaders who don’t bring these sinners to justice. Retroactively punish all who were involved in sexual abuse cases. Resign your office and hand control of the church to the new governing body.

This is a radical suggestion, I know, and one unlikely to be considered. But what the pope needs to consider is the impact on the effectiveness of other church communications. This crisis threatens to weaken all other messages that the Church would like to promote, in particular, its advocacy against abortion, birth control, stem cell research and homosexuality. (Full disclosure: My views on these issues do not align with the Church’s positions; this is a column about the impact of crisis on the effectiveness of PR.)

I read a commentary today that said the pope had done more to shine the light on sexual abuse cases than any other pope. That may be. But unless he makes radical change to the organization, he is likely to go down in history as the pope who had the opportunity to halt the decline of the church, but didn’t take it.

Words can sugar a situation, but they won’t quell a crisis on their own. They have to be backed by substance.

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