Sunday 17 December 2017

Terry Prone: Vatican are either so arrogant they don't care about reaction of the faithful, or totally ignorant about how mass media works

The Vatican doesn't get it, when it comes to communications. It may announce that the Pope has his own Facebook account, it may have a small army of press officers and it may employ the most modern communications technology, but it still doesn't get the whole communications business.

It never seems to start with the end result it wants to achieve. Or maybe it doesn't have an end result. Maybe it just makes decisions and believes the rest of us should unquestioningly accept them.


But let's assume the Vatican isn't as dictatorial as that. Let's assume that, having decided to turn down the resignations of two Irish Bishops, Rome wanted the Irish faithful to understand the reasoning behind the refusal.

It wasn't going to be easy, because the victims' groups, together with most commentators, wanted the resignations accepted.

So anybody with a communications brain or a PR background would have told the Vatican they'd have to make the reason clear and understandable and interesting in their statement.

Anybody with a PR background would have added that they'd better have a bloody good spokesperson on radio and television, which would otherwise be dominated by condemnation of His Holiness.

Did they issue a statement about this issue? No. Did they make the reasons clear and understandable and interesting? No. Did they have a good spokesperson out on electronic media to shape the discussion arising? No. Does any of that matter? Yes.

It matters because, from its inception, the Catholic Church was built on great communication. On images -- like the birth of God in a stable in Bethlehem -- that would entrance people for two millennia. On powerful preaching and beautiful books. When radio and TV came along, sisters, priests and bishops initially used the media better than any other profession.

But somewhere along the line, the officer class in the Catholic Church decided they no longer needed to explain and persuade and motivate. They could just tell the faithful. Or not tell them, as in this case.

The really peculiar aspect of this latest episode is that it seems to have tainted as a poor communicator one of the few members of the hierarchy everybody thought was on top of the communications issue from the time he became a bishop: Diarmuid Martin.

Bishop Martin did no more than mention the refusal of the resignations towards the end of a three-page letter to his priests about other matters. Fortunately, the editor of The Irish Catholic was informed about the paragraph and had the wit to see its significance.

So now we all know that the resignations have been refused. What we DON'T know, on the other hand, is why Archbishop Martin slid the news into an internal communication, rather than making a big issue of it. The Archbishop is a smart man. He could have announced the refusal of the resignations, indicated that he didn't agree with the Pope on this issue but was deferring to His Holiness's authority. He could have announced the refusal of the resignations, made no comment of his own, and simply passed on to the faithful the Vatican's reasoning. If he knew the Vatican's reasoning.

And that's the core of the whole issue. When people have to be told something they're not going to like, it's essential that they're given reasons and that those reasons are explained by an interesting and understandable spokesperson who sounds like a human being.


Instead, the news slid out indirectly, in such a way as to catch the hierarchy's press man, Martin Long, completely offside. Discourteous to the man, unhelpful to the issue. Unhelpful, most of all, to the two bishops who now have to pick up their work in a newly poisonous context, courtesy of poor Vatican communication.

It seems to me there are only two possible explanations. Arrogance or ignorance. Either the Vatican are so arrogant they don't care about the reaction of the faithful, or they're completely ignorant about mass media and how it works. Neither is acceptable. Any organisation that seeks for hearts and minds has to start by getting the communications right.

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