CathBlog - Getting brand Vatican 'on message'

BY DAVID TIMBS

The brand is everything. Name-recognition, credibility, reliability are all things highly valued by a discriminating public and advertising the brand is all about value creation.  

The greatest guarantee of value-adding is good will and the market place determines that. Right now the Vatican is desperately seeking both. It needs to promote the brand and clarify product identity.

Recently the Vatican Press Office hired a highly credentialed and well-connected outsider to provide some much needed professional advice and expertise in the face of unprecedented criticism of the Office’s uneven performance and suspect credibility. 

The new help is Greg Burke. He is an Opus Dei numerary, previously Rome correspondent for Time Magazine and the formerly Legion owned National Catholic Register (not Reporter). Most recently he was with Fox News. 

Burke knows Rome and the news and information industry. He knows the public and the power of persuasive language. 

But his immediate focus is getting his employers to understand the power of modern information technology and public perceptions about the credibility factor of the information communicated. 

In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, he commented:

My appointment reveals the perception of the need to pay attention to the media not only at the moment of communication but already in the preparation of what will be communicated. I’m not a public relations expert but I know what journalists seek, I am used to monitoring the information scene, I have some ability to understand on what thing a word or news that is given will fall.

Lately the Vatican Press Office has been working overtime attempting to negotiate the rapids of a power struggle between the Roman Curia and the Secretariat of State. 

The latter’s head, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has determined to assert total control over all Vatican communications. In doing so, he has paid dearly and is now under constant siege internally and externally. 

All of this has also taken a toll on the patience and dedication of Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, the Office’s spokesman. Burke’s assistance and expertise will no doubt be welcomed by Lombardi, who is keen to promote genuine professionalism, candour and transparency.

Coupled with Cardinal Bertone’s story is the ongoing tabloid drama of Curial internecine, corruption, power-games, intrigue and deception which graphically indicate advanced institutional decay and decline. There is an unholy war raging in the Vatican. It is doing good neither for product identity nor the tainted Catholic brand.

As a member of Opus Dei, Burke would be sensitive to a perception that his organisation is highly secretive and that the Vatican itself is seen in a similar light. 

Those in top Church leadership have become accustomed to working within a sub-culture of shame and honour, privilege, status and protectiveness of position at all costs. Vatican bureaucracy has long operated on graded levels of truth and transparency.  Real, unadulterated truth, even pontifical secrecy, is restricted to the clerical managerial class while a vastly different cosmeticised version is filtered through to the docile and compliant pew-sitters of the lumpenproletariat.

No doubt Burke would be conscious of John Ralston Saul’s definition of PR as a negative form of imagination. Mussolini said “invention is more useful than truth.” 

Saul also expresses caution about the dangers of pre-packaged answers. These can, he observes, simply be a mechanism to avoid questions. He writes that this kind of avoidance can be obsessional, even manic, in its manifestations particularly when answers are fabricated to protect power and privilege. 

There is a whole management class of bureaucrats in Vatican service dedicated to self-interest, narcissism and self-preservation. Perversely these officials make the ecclesiastical orb spin the way it does. Burke may find himself in a drawn out process to de-program them from their clericalist autism and re-program for open communication. They are simply not in contact with realities beyond their cloisters and the colonnades. 

While the Vatican and its Curia are becoming increasingly concerned that ecclesiastical jargon and coded dialects are getting in the way of direct communication, it is apparent that the solutions are becoming even more intractably complex in some local jurisdictions. The Catholic Church in the United States is a clear example of this.

Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University recently expressed alarm at the eager embrace of corporate business jargon by some American Bishops in promoting the New Evangelisation. 

She notes:

For the bishops who see themselves at the pointy end of the pyramid, it’s all reduced to a marketing problem. A couple of the US bishops say they need ‘more sophistication’ in their ‘messaging’ and someone to ‘strategise’ them!

The corporate PR concept has even caught on in Rome – witness ex-Fox broadcaster Greg Burke’s new communications role, invented not long after Cardinal William Levada said central command need assistance with ‘product identity.’

Zagano sees here a deeper issue than the superficiality of the newly appropriated buzz-words of corporate advertising in messaging the Church’s brand. She identifies the problem not with strategy in itself but with the ecclesiastical strategisers, not just with the messaging but with the messengers. 

Greg Burke is on to this as well. Commenting on the critical importance of the message, messaging and the messengers he says

You’re shaping the message, you’re moulding the message, and you’re trying to make sure everyone remains on message, and that’s tough.

What is needed is a dramatic psychic shift in upper Church governance which will require a fundamental conversion to the human, pastoral and ecclesial world beyond their own enclosed cosmos its attendant rhetoric and propaganda. Maybe Greg Burke can persuade the Curial bureaucrats that they are firstly servants of the People of God and not office workers in a corporation. That could be really tough.


David TimbsDavid Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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