The Catholic Church – a lesson in (poor) crisis communications

4 April 2010 By Northern Lights

The Catholic Church – a lesson in (poor) crisis communications image

church, window, canterbury churchThe Guardian this weekend reports “The archbishop of Canterbury has said the Catholic church in Ireland has lost “all credibility” because of its poor handling of the scandal of paedophile priests.”

Two weeks ago the pope made an unprecedented move and issued a letter of apology to Irish Catholics.  No doubt he thought this would silence the critics.  Instead it has fuelled a debate.

What has gone wrong and what can corporates learn from this communications fiasco?

Perhaps the biggest clue to the poor handling lies in Guy Dinmore’s FT report that the pope conferred “with his closest aides”.

So let’s look at who the pope should have conferred with and what good crisis communications could have looked like.

1.   The rules of crisis communications

  • Anticipate the crises and have a plan in place.  The paedophile scandal was a boil waiting to burst for decades.  Any half-decent adviser should have addressed this years ago
  • Absolute truth and honesty. You would hardly think you need to say this to the Church, but even they are struggling to open up and be really honest about what has happened.  No matter whether you are the Church, an individual leader or a corporate body – you have to be honest.  Once and for all.  Don’t make it worse by turning the cover up into a story ten times worse
  • Accept the blame where it lies
  • Listen to the criticism.  And that means active listening and understanding it – what is the criticism, why is it being made, where is the critic coming from?
  • Respect the criticism.   You may not agree with opposing views, but their opinion is valid (and usually the one the public will go for)
  • Involve your critics in your action plan
  • Put right what you have done wrong
  • Take swift action – no matter the cost, do what is right and quickly.  Be seen to be doing the right thing and doing it seriously

2.     What communications should the Church have done?*

Where to start?  Clearly there are decades of child abuse and cover-up.  But let’s take the start of the recent hiatus – which seems to have started with the publication of Murphy Commission of Inquiry report in November 2009.

It is almost certain that the Vatican will have been given advance warning of the findings in this report – probably a week or more but at the least you would expect 12 hours’ notice.

At the point of knowing the full horror of the abuse itself and the scale of the knowledge and cover-up, the Vatican should have led the way

  • Publicly accepted the findings of the report, accepted the blame and apologised – immediately
  • Personally written to all the victims, apologised to them individually and outlined what plans they were taking
  • Invited all those who had been abused to be involved in deciding what action should be taken and how.  What did they think the Archbishops should now do – should they be dismissed, reprimanded, made to make public apologies?  Let the victims decide – not a bunch of remote senior clerics shut into a room in the Vatican
  • Agree a plan with those abused – and carry it out swiftly.  Agree with them what should be made public and how this should be done
  • Identify the weaknesses in the Church’s systems that allowed abuse and cover-up – again, involve the victims and their families in this.  They have first-hand knowledge
  • Agree new systems, consult and publicise them – invite comment and ideas.  Put them into place once they seem robust
  • Be prepared to invest considerable sums into the process to ensure they did the best they could.  This might involve sacrifices, such as selling important gold treasures at the Vatican to put right the past (as much as can be done).  Sometimes you need tangible gestures like this to say you are serious and your heart is in it

3.   Does good handling of a crisis matter?

How has poor handling of the crisis affected the core ‘business’ of the Church?

Dr Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury is quoted:  “I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now.  And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society suddenly losing all credibility – that’s not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland.”

The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, in the same article:  “In all my years as archbishop of Dublin in difficult times I have rarely felt personally so discouraged as when I woke to hear archbishop Williams’ comments.”

The pope is due to visit Britain in September and according to the Guardian, is expected to talk about moral standards and renew his attack on Britain’s equality laws.

What impact will his comments have on the British public?  I leave you to imagine the British tabloid headlines – but the phrase ‘pot calls the kettle black’ springs to mind.

*Clearly these recommendations are based on interpretation of what is in the media and ideas based on our expertise, rather than in-depth knowledge of the Church and its systems

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Written by Northern Lights

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