Monday, April 12, 2010

Actually, Charles, the Church DOES Need PR

The headline for Charles Honey's Grand Rapids Press religion column last Saturday was "Church needs a pastor, not PR." There is a slightly different headline in the online version, but the text of the column is the same.

I mostly agree with the sentiments in the column, but I take issue with one line that characterizes the Vatican "trying to put PR spin on a crisis that calls for humble pastoral candor from the pope."

In fact, the line is ironic given that Honey chastises the church for using PR and then devotes the entire remainder of the column proposing that the church do....PR. He mentions speaking with candor, honestly, directly to the people.

These are the very things that public relations practitioners--the good ones--counsel their clients and coworkers to do.

The problem is clear. Mr. Honey has a wonderful grasp of religious history and issues, but falls into a trap of seeing a bad example of PR and associating it as the essence of a profession.

In fact, it is ironic that I have in the past used a church metaphor to defend public relations. "Not all priests are pedophiles, and not all PR practitioners are spinners," I would explain. I often have to defend the public relations profession from broad-brush stereotype among other faculty members. PR is used as a pejorative adjective, as in "PR stunt" or "PR spin," or it is a preceded by a diminutive adjective, as in "just PR." Either way, it lends the impression that PR--by definition--is deceptive. In fact, some practitioners, as in any field, don't practice public relations responsibly. But they can't define the entire field. All PR educators and most practitioners I have met teach and practice PR as a form of mutual relationship building.

The problem is that too many people confuse PR as image crafting, as opposed to relationship and reputation building. An image is illusive and based on words and symbols alone. A relationship and reputation are earned and understood through experience. Words can never undo behavior. Nothing the church says can change what some people experienced--the people are waiting for action.

Another problem is that in many organizations people other than the public relations professionals do the communicating and engage in behavior that gets called "PR" even if the actual public relations person gave counsel to do otherwise and was ignored. That may be the case with the Vatican currently. Time Magazine points out that Father Federico Lombadi, the Vatican spokesman responsible for getting the Vatican on Twitter and YouTube, has not spoken directly to the Pope more than once regarding this current crisis. This is largely because of a rigid structure and chain-of-command in the Vatican.

So, is the Vatican handling this crisis effectively by referring to criticism as "gossip"? No. But, their bad response should not be equated with PR; it should be held out as a bad form of it.

What the church really needs is some legitimate PR, in the form of two-way, open dialog that fosters and heals relationships. If you think about it, that is what public relations and the church should have most in common.


Mike Marn said...

Interesting. I made the same point in a PR class this morning, based on an article in a Catholic publication. Students still equated the words "containment" and "damage control" as negative, and akin to all the perceptions of "spin" as you have long called them out.

Organizations make mistakes; the Church, Toyota, Massey Energy, etc. But an honest desire to "do the right thing" about problems, and survive to continue doing business, employing people, and so on is NOT evil. And attempting to present another side, so that vocal opponents don't magnify the tragedy and create more tragedy in the process, is appropriate and honorable.

The best public relations happen before (and often can help mitigate) a crisis; but there is still room for honest professional efforts no matter how wrong things go.

Matt Baron said...

Very well stated, Tim! Having developed thick skin through two decades in journalism, I'm familiar with the broad brushstrokes that people make now that I'm a publicist. I've started to refer to myself as an "in-house journalist" for clients, which may well be opening me up for just as much, if not more, criticism to equate what I do with journalism.