Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Can smart PR deliver public absolution for the pope and Vatican?

A Web 2.0 world is watching as scandal rocks the Catholic Church, all the way to the Holy See

Writing about the Vatican, the pope and religion—today or at any time—without mention of politics or moral judgment is a hard call. Hard because religion, morality and politics are inherently intertwined, whether we like it that way or even realize it. And that is why discussions about these topics are polarizing, divisive and downright destructive in so many ways.

So this article isn't going to take on those issues prima facie but instead will look at the Vatican and its current PR crisis—perhaps the most damaging, but really just the latest in a long series of PR crises.

The differences between the PR crisis arising from the sex-abuse scandal and previous scandals—think indulgences, celibacy, and female laity—are twofold. First, it is taking place in an information-dominated era, in which previously effective mitigation tactics such as stifling inquiry and withholding pertinent data are impossible. Second, the current crisis has trust (or the breaking thereof) at its very center, which makes any sort of response inherently suspect.

Same story, different era

I recall the stories I heard as a youth about numerous Church scandals detailing cover-ups of abuse and unspeakable acts made by local priests all the way up to archbishops and the Vatican itself, hushed up to protect the sanctity and reputation of an institution that has sought to teach mankind to act in exactly the opposite ways of its clergy and representatives.

That's a very big PR quandary. How can the Church or Pope Benedict XVI hope or begin to rebuild the public's trust through any PR effort when the institution’s very mission is the codification and enforcement of morality? In other words, how does a moral authority, stripped of its authority through moral failing, regain either?

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