"The wider world is less generous with giving Catholic clergy the benefit of the doubt" - former Church comms chief on crisis PR over Cardinal Keith O'Brien resignation
As Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, quits following claims of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ made against him, a former communications chief for the Catholic Church has told The Drum that the crisis within the Catholic Church will only be made worse should it choose to enter into a dialogue with the press without taking in-house comms advice first.
The former senior communications figure, who has asked not to be named to protect their current role, offered his view on how the crisis faced by the church, just two weeks after the resignation of the Pope, should be handled by those charged with protecting, as best they can, its image.
"The Cardinal has denied the allegations, therefore they are not true so far as he is concerned - that is key and will have to form the bedrock of the media narrative. It is difficult because however unfair it may be, the wider world is less generous with giving Catholic clergy the benefit of the doubt,” they began.
"In a lot of organisations the first victims of a crisis are sensible judgement and common sense. What should be a calm mature internal dialogue turns rapidly into a many headed ‘omnishambles’ with professional communicators grappling not only with senior journalists who are suddenly very interested in the industry but also senior management who lose their heads and either ignore advice or appoint so-called crisis consultants over the heads of the in-house team, from some PR agency their 25-year-old cousin runs or one owned by some establishment gent on the board of the Scotsman.
“This is painfully true of religious institutions, partly because of an honest scepticism of what are viewed as secular disciplines but also because they are still not familiar with their views being challenged, still regarding such conduct as impertinence. The crisis is therefore made worse by the collision under pressure of clerical models of power which are in essence medieval and the mercurial, whole heartedly secular mindset required of even the most pious communications advisor.”
They concluded by explaining that there was “a gulf” in thinking between the Church and any corporate body, which poses further problems for the PRs tasked with handling the situation.
“It is part of the communications professional’s job to bridge that gap. Increasingly I suspect within religious organisations that gulf is very hard to bridge as, however counter intuitive it is, religious leaders are not moving very far with the times. Just ask the guys at the Church of England, I gather the internal chatter after the vote of women bishops was pretty industrial behind closed doors."
O’Brien was due to retire in mid-March at the age of 75.