Come in Spinner: The eternal PR operation

For an organisation which prides itself on its millennia-long view of the world, heaven and all things in between, the Vatican certainly spends a lot of time focussed on day to day public relations.

Indeed, barely a day goes by without some Vatican PR initiative, statement, lobbying or other activity.

This past week we have seen one of the keystones of its PR efforts – the creation of a saint. Now I admire Mary MacKillop who, like other intelligent and forceful nuns such as Sor Juana (see Octavio Paz’s biography, Sor Juana), ran into problems with the Vatican. It’s not only nuns of course – the Church is not exactly keen on strong women at all. But it’s happy make them saints in the systematic campaign to create more – specifically in areas where the brand is weak. No saint in Australia? Then create one and generate some good publicity.

They even set out to make saints of those, such as Cardinal Newman, who explicitly said he did not, and would never want to, be sanctified. The Church is not alone in this. Lenin was also adamant about his post-life wishes too, but that didn’t stop another authoritarian lot from sanctifying him in mummified form.

Australia is even getting a visit from a Vatican spin doctor. Next week Monsignor Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication (Vatican City) is coming to Darwin to speak to the annual Public Relations Institute of Australia conference on the use of social media and communications in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Pell, who was at the centre of the MacKillop sanctification, is another regular PR user having employed one of Australia’s best PR companies, Royce, and two of the country’s best PR practitioners, Peter Mahon and Barry Whalen.

….and the word propaganda, incidentally, started with the Catholic Church when in 1622 Gregory XV set up a Commission of Cardinals which became a sacred congregation de propaganda fide although its connotation then was not the same as current day usage.

Saints are just one part of the PR campaign – the marketing communications and event management end so to speak – but there are other aspects as well. The Vatican uses the dodgy sovereign status it got from treaties with Mussolini and Hitler to lobby in UN forums against evils such as condoms, abortion and homosexuality – siding with allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It also regularly issues major statements. One of the most recent was condemning the Nobel Prize Committee for awarding the medicine Nobel to Robert Edwards, the IVF pioneer – ensuring the Chinese weren’t the only ones upset by the Nobel committee.

The need for PR is particularly acute at present because of the major crisis the church has faced over child abuse. A good crisis communication manager would have advised the Church that a dose of confession and a concerted communication campaign around what was being done to fix things up were the way to go. Instead, the Vatican blamed the media, homosexuality and society as a whole.

At no stage did the victims get the same consideration as the perpetrators as shown by Geoffrey Robertson’s new book, The Case of the Pope. The book is well worth reading. I thought I knew a bit about the background of the abuse and what the Church had done but Robertson describes the scale, context and responses brilliantly. Robertson makes it clear that at no time did the Church condemn child abuse with the vigour it has birth control and homosexuality. It even, when it signed the UN Convention on the Child, negotiated a let-out clause which provided wriggle-room in dealing with priestly abuse. The book is so good in fact I might try to give Monsignor Tighe a copy at the Darwin conference.

Of course, it is hard for a crisis manager to advise the Church because the Church doesn’t take advice – it gives it to others in the form of injunctions. It is the personification of the philosopher, J.L.Austin’s, concept of performative utterance practice where words uttered alter circumstances. In the case of the Church this is compounded by the existence (after a 19th C invention) of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

A former colleague was briefly an adviser to the Boston Archbishopric where the child abuse problems were exposed by the Boston Globe. The problem with being such an advisor is that the episcopal staff only listened to the Cardinal who only listened to the Pope who, from the outcome of the global child abuse scandal, didn’t presumably listen to his god as closely as he might have.

It is perhaps ironic that the Church is currently taking the line it is. The current pope was a relative liberal in his youth (although 1968 seems to have changed that) and he is the first genuinely intellectual pope for many years. In fact the double which currently applies – an intellectual pope and an intellectual Archbishop of Canterbury – may be more miraculous than some of the miracles ascribed to various saints. It may even have been what Kevin Rudd was referring to when he said he believed in miracles.

But the Church’s current line, backed by papal infallibility, also supports the Dr Who version of power. In a 1977 plot the Doctor said: “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views – which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that need altering.”  Something to which young children bu…ed, and forced to perform fe….tio, by priests could testify.

Note: I was alerted to the The Dr Who quote by a Mark Juddery article, Revenge of the Geeks, in Griffith Review 13.