Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Church needs a rapid response unit

Church needs a rapid response unit
Andrew O'Connell Irish Catholic
22 Jul 2010
Friday, July 16, felt more like Friday the thirteenth for anyone following the Church's fortunes in the media. The day turned into a nightmare as news programmes discussed the new Vatican document which includes details of much tougher procedures to deal with clerical abuse.

What should have been a good news day for the Church turned into a hugely damaging debacle. In addition to stricter child abuse procedures, the Vatican document also listed a number of crimes against the sacraments, such as the throwing away of a consecrated host and the ordination of women. This was enough for some media outlets to suggest that the Vatican was equating child abuse and female ordination.

''The Pope's Insult to ALL women'' ran the front page of The Daily Mail while The Irish Independent falsely claimed ''Vatican says female priests 'as sinful' as child abuse''.

Yes, it would have been easier if Rome had published the new procedures for dealing with clerical abuse in a separate document and at a separate time to crimes against the sacraments. In an ideal world the media should be able to distinguish between the two but we do not live in an ideal world.

The incident revealed several major weaknesses in the Church's ability to respond to a communications crisis. For a start, it highlights the pressing need for the Church to have a spokesperson, or more accurately, several of them, who are prepared and available at short notice to go on radio and TV to discuss controversial issues.

The air raid siren for this latest media blitz sounded on the previous Thursday night when TV3's Vincent Browne Show discussed the document and gave a preview of the ill-informed and prejudiced opinion which would be heard again throughout Friday. At that point, a panel of Church spokespeople should have been cancelling all engagements for the following day and getting a good night's sleep for a busy day ahead.

An early morning meeting to agree a common response should have been convened after which local and national radio shows should have been contacted offering commentators to discuss the document. An e-mail, capable of reaching every parish in the country, should have been arriving in inboxes by mid morning highlighting the inaccuracies in the reporting in the secular media.

A body of lay people should have been mobilised to make their feelings known to the editors of offending newspapers while opinion pieces should have been drafted and offered to that weekend's publications.

Instead, there was no one on the airwaves to challenge the false interpretations of the document. By lunchtime it had reached the level of farce as Damian Kiberd on Newstalk's Lunchtime programme wondered if this incident provided evidence that perhaps there is truth to ''The Da Vinci Code'' after all. Later that evening George Hook encouraged women to walk out of Churches the following Sunday. The Sunday Independent gave us the expert analysis of that well known authority on religious affairs, Celia Larkin.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

One wonders how many more days like that the Church can endure. Surely, the establishment of a rapid response unit to deal with crises like this is now the number one communications priority for the Church.

We just can't go on like this.

Speed #killsBill Clinton's 1992 presidential election campaign had a motto which governed its approach to communications. It was ''speed kills''. The idea is that a rapid response to a crisis or controversy is critical in shutting the story down with a minimum of damage.

Rapid and robust clarifications are critically important. They lay down a marker that inaccurate comments will not go unchallenged and thereby encourage both editors and commentators to check their facts before going to print next time.

They also serve to encourage regular believers who may be wondering if there is in fact some truth to the statements.

To its credit, the Catholic Communications Office did this after The Irish Examiner published inaccurate comments made by Eamon Gilmore about the Pope's views on homosexuality.

A clarification was issued on the same day and the paper subsequently published it in the letters section of the paper.

Confusion on the ground

The damage done by a bad media day is incalculable. I've heard several stories from around the country to back that up. A primary school teacher in the West told me that she had to listen as the Pope was savaged at a party she attended on Saturday night while a religious brother told me he had been pulled aside after Mass in his parish to explain the document. Both said they felt very unsure in explaining the Church's position.


The incident highlights the importance of the Church being able to reach the Faithful independently of the mainstream media. It also points to the importance of a strong Catholic press which provides clarity and accuracy during these controversies.

The Faithful on the ground are crying out for it.

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