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The Catholic Enron. (Media/Law).

Just a few months ago no one would have predicted that an organization could manage a scandal more ineptly than Enron did.

But then along came the priest sex-abuse uproar--and the Catholic Church, especially in St. Louis, provided a textbook example of how not to respond to a developing imbroglio.

The Church's reaction, which violated almost all the basic principles of crisis management, also illustrated the fact that modern public relations troubles usually involve legal problems too--which makes a response extraordinarily tricky.

Here are a few random thoughts on several key PR axioms and how Church officials handled them.

1. Have a plan. Most organizations can anticipate an issue that will become a PR nightmare if the media were to latch onto it. For instance, a pharmacy knows it will face intense scrutiny should one of its customers die after taking a misfilled prescription. A restaurant can bet that cameras will be at its front door if 40 people get food poisoning from eating a chicken sandwich. Every organization needs to foresee such a disaster and be ready to implement its crisis response plan-there's too much commotion going on at the time of the adversity to fashion an intelligent off-the-cuff response.

It's obvious that the Chancery on Lindell had no media plan when the sex-abuse crisis hit. The first reaction was to hunker down and issue only written statements that gave meager information about two priests who were removed from their parishes. Then when the situation spiraled out of control, several different spokespeople were saying several different things in the newspaper and on radio and television.

The ad hoc nature of the reaction was even more inexplicable because the Church knew it had several problem priests in its ranks and should have expected that a ruckus would ensue once the situation became public knowledge. Furthermore, the St. Louis Church had a few days' advance notice because the scandal broke first in New England--a plan should have been formulated when the news about Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's plight hit the national media.

2. Get out in front. Every trial lawyer knows that bad news is less damaging if it's revealed by your own side rather than by your opponent. That's why an attorney will volunteer unfavorable facts to a jury, because the blow is softened.

The same principle applies in the media--harmful facts sound less harmful when they come in the form of an admission rather than an accusation. In addition, being out front of an issue allows an organization to control the message to a certain degree and define the story. The Clinton administration was excellent in this regard. It would leak damaging news over the weekend and then when reporters called Monday morning the spinmeister's people would reply, "This is old news, let's move on."

In this case the Church reacted slowly and had to be dragged into the klieg lights. By the time it decided to respond, the story was already written--"the Church is paying hush money to cover up for pedophile priests." From then on, it was impossible to salvage the situation.

3. Give a positive message. Even in the worst of circumstances a positive message can be communicated by an organization suffering through a media trial. That's why the "no comment" response should rarely be used. The story is going to be written whether the organization likes it or not, so it might as well get its message out.

Here the Church, especially Archbishop Justin Rigali, refused to talk as the early stages of the crisis unfolded. The headline quickly became "Church cover up," and Rigali played into the story by resisting any interviews or substantive disclosures. He should have made himself available to the press immediately and conveyed a positive point, such as, "The children are our first priority, and we're going to make sure no others are hurt," or "We are waiving the confidentiality provisions of all prior settlements, or "We are calling on all local prosecutors to meet with us to discuss ways to prevent this from happening again." Whatever the message, it should have been affirmative and confident and replayed ceaselessly in all interviews.

4. Don't whine about a biased media. Every group believes that it's being persecuted by the media when reporters start calling and stories start running. It's a natural reaction, but people forget that the biggest prejudice is ratings. A good story sells advertisements and pays the reporters' and news directors' salaries.

And it's difficult to deny that the abuse of young boys by priests, and an alleged cover-up by diocesan officials, are good stories that will get ratings. The St. Louis Archdiocese did not engage in too much criticism of the media, but some Church officials remarked on the "relentless" and "tenacious" media coverage. These observations--even if true--do nothing but antagonize the press and give the impression that there's something to hide. They also distract an organization from trying to manage the crisis.

Media bashing, however, can be effective when it's a well-thought-out, purposeful strategy--remember the "high-tech lynching" of Clarence Thomas and candidate Ronald Reagan's "I paid for this microphone" remark? In the priest abuse scandal the Church might have used media bashing to its advantage by playing the religion card, with something like: "The liberal media are attacking the Church, and all Catholics should voice their outrage about this unfair assault focusing on the mistakes of a few priests." There is still enough of a bond among Catholics, especially in St. Louis, that could have made this response viable.

5. Control the territory. The ambush interview is one of the hallmarks of "60 Minutes" and one of the main reasons for the program's success--people often make crippling admissions when they're caught off-guard and don't control the territory during an interview. The lesson is clear for those in the media spotlight: an appearance in a familiar, comfortable environment will have more favorable results than a venture onto the media's turf.

That's why Rigali made a major mistake when he bounced around at all the major television and radio stations the last week of March and appeared live on camera. He entered the lion's den and subjected himself to a grilling that made him look awkward at best and dissembling at worst. Rigali's strength is giving well-designed, thoughtful, choreographed statements, not taking penetrating questions live in-studio from veteran media stars. The best appearance would have been a press conference at the Chancery, emceed by another bishop, who could have cut off the questioning when it became too aggressive.

6. Don't be legalistic. Most modern PR crises are saddled with the additional problem of potential civil or criminal liability. The Monica Lewinsky affair is a prime example--President Clinton was facing a political debacle of the most serious dimensions but was also looking at criminal prosecution if he misplayed his cards. Ditto Andersen's current situation; if it doesn't come clean in a well-crafted PR campaign Andersen risks losing all its clients, but if it's not careful some of its executives could wind up in jail or paying out millions in damages.

So, obviously, an organization should always take legal ramifications into account when managing a crisis. But the lawyers should not be allowed to dominate the situation, because then the organization winds up communicating like a lawyer--that is, not making any sense to the general public.

In the Church's situation, legalisms put a muzzle on effective public relations: priests would be removed if there were a "substantiated" allegation of abuse; Rigali refused to say whether he would cooperate with prosecutors in any criminal investigations; and the reasons for the confidentiality of settlement agreements were not adequately explained. All these reactions made the Chancery sound like it was doing what it denied--covering up a scandal.

Enron's media crisis ended only because a juicier sensation emerged--sex abuse by priests. At this point, the only thing the Church can do to get out of the spotlight is hope that an even more engrossing scandal emerges elsewhere.

RELATED ARTICLE: A few random thoughts

1. Have a plan

2. Get out in front

3. Give a positive message

4. Don't whine about a biased media

5. Control the territory

6. Don't be legalistic

Ken Jones is publisher and editor-in-chief of Missouri Lawyers Weekly (
COPYRIGHT 2002 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church sex scandals
Author:Jones, Ken
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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