Crisis Communications at the Vatican

The Vatican, which has been subject to scandal for years, recently hired a senior communications advisor to help coordinate its communications efforts and serve as a press spokesperson. The primary responsibility of the role is to “formulate the message and then try to make sure everyone remains on message,” said the new advisor in a statement that, at first glance, makes the job seem easy, but which professionals know is one of the most difficult crisis communications tasks they ever have to face.

Chosen for the job was Greg Burke, a Fox news correspondent who has covered the Vatican for many years. He is the “first communications expert hired from outside the insular world of the Roman Catholic news media,” according to The New York Times. His background suggests that he has never—certainly not in the past 25 years—had any experience in crisis communications management.

The Roman Catholic Church is now confronting a major crisis: from ongoing accusations of pedophiles among its priests, which have to date led to settlements of more than $1 billion dollars; the release of secret Vatican files prompting the arrest of the Pope’s butler; this week’s sentencing of the first senior Church official in the United States for child endangerment for covering up sexual abuse acts by priests. With all these issues facing the Church, communications professionals have to wonder why the Vatican didn’t bring in a PR executive with strong experience in crisis management, one who could grasp the full scope of the issues, set strategies, and know how to execute them where necessary around the world.

This is the kind of person most corporate communications experts would recommend if their companies faced issues as severe as those now challenging the Vatican. They would not hire a newsman (unless he had a lot of crisis communications management somewhere in his background). Moreover, they might go beyond hiring a single person and enlist a PR agency with a worldwide staff to address the problems whose scope calls for message and media experts in specific locations besides Rome.

I’ve worked on both sides of corporate PR: inside companies, leading teams of communicators; and inside agencies, working with client staff members. Alongside me as my company handles a crisis, I want an experienced communications leader to craft the message and a number of well-trained people to spread that message through the right blog and Twitter posts and make it part of the coverage of every print and online media outlet we target.