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Debate: Should the Vatican put more energy into public relations?

The Vatican is often criticised for paying little or no attention to PR. At the same time many believe that a slick, modern PR office would hinder its mission

By on Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, at a press conference (Photo: CNS)

The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, at a press conference (Photo: CNS)

The Vatican is often criticised for paying little or no attention to public relations. It has only one spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, who is also in charge of Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Centre. Its press office closes in the afternoon, and its staff often do not speak very good English.

Last week it issued tighter norms on dealing with clerical sex abuse at the same time as it upgraded the punishment for the attempted ordination of women. This led to headlines such as: “Ordination of women as bad as child abuse in Vatican’s eyes.”

The mistake led to huge frustration among otherwise loyal Catholics.

However, many believe that a slick, modern PR office, obsessed with branding and being “on message”, would undermine the teaching of the Church. It would risk being insincere, concerned only with the next day’s headlines, and end up distorting the Church’s mission.

So, does the Church need to devote more energy to public relations? Should it be more PR-conscious?

  • Andrew

    I've met Fr Lombardi and he's a delightful and kindly gentleman. If the Vatican were to adopt some slick PR operation, isn't there a danger it would back-fire? After all, look at England and Wales – the bishops here have a vast communications empire, media training etc – it doesn't help much does it? PR disasters aren't avoided.

    The trouble is in the Vatican you have a state and an organisation that has different concerns and priorities from the international news media.

    In general perhaps it would helpful for the Church to get rid of any idea that secrecy is desirable.

  • burritobob

    I don't see why having a large, professional press office that responds quickly to queries has to be slick and insincere.

    I think the main thing is that the people themselves are genuinely motivated to serve the Church.

    When the Vatican issued its norms, there was not one word from the bishops of England and Wales. Yet clearly the norms needed explaining. The US bishops held a separate press conference – surely it would have been helpful for the English and Welsh bishops to do the same? Lots of people I know were genuinely confused by the norms – they thought the Vatican was saying child abuse and “ordaining” women were morally equivalent.

  • elaine kilshaw


  • elaine kilshaw

    Get real religious nuts. The time is at its end now that people are executed by so called religious people, making a god an excuse for killing.
    Is not the church responsible for its followers who abuse children. now is the time to stand up and admit religion has been one of the most evil inventions by man.

  • Peter Kingsley

    Rather than a slick, modern PR office perhaps an efficient Christian PR office might be more appropriate. We are called to go-out and spread the Good News so perhaps Jesus also would have been happy with good PR.

  • Martha Bux

    Sorry Burritobob, I'm with Andrew and Andrew Brown at the Gruaniad on this one. While the Vatican courts disaster when it comes to its PR strategy (and my goodness, it's pretty damn bad sometimes), it's really refreshing that it is not a slick PR operation. We're so oversaturated with media campaigns, viral advertising, lobbying and what-have you that it's almost encouraging to see the institution which is so often accused of brainwashing people with propaganda, lies and devious methods struggle with the basics of presenting a story.

    The Vatican doesn't need a glittering PR strategy, rather it needs to reform its channels of communication and the way the Curial departments communicate with each other.

    At the moment, some wit has described it, the Vatican communications strategy consists of Jesuit with a fax machine. That needs to change. Fr Lombardi is a very capable guy. He takes a press conference and gets the journalists to laugh, while informing them. But he hardly ever speaks to the Pope. This is unusual. The leaders of multinational companies and normal statesmen meet with their chief press officers on an almost daily basis. It is odd that the spiritual leader of 1billion people does not confer with his press officer more regularly.

    Curial departments also struggle to communicate with one another, the Vatican press office and the Holy Father. There needs to be more communication and more clarity. And perhaps someone with common sense who thinks, just occasionally, on how the Church is perceived in the non-Catholic world.

    Because it is the lay people, who are not necessarily the best equipped in these times, who bear the brunt of the Vatican's PR gaffes. For us lay people, it would be good if we got some decent catechesis and some proper evangelisation from our priests and some clarity of understanding on how the temporal structures of our faith work, so that we arent sitting there apologising for obscure canonical processes which nobody outside the Vatican understands, least of all journalists.

  • Mammyoriordan

    Forget about PR and give good catechesis to those who are Faithful and doing their best to grow in holiness. And whilst we have control of Catholic schools teach the children well. How many kids know the prayers of the Church? Catholics don't even know when to stand and when to kneel at Mass. Catholics don't know that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. The confessional boxes stand idle. Get our own house in order and then we can go shine. As things now stand one can only ask “Catholics Come Home” to what? – “Lord send us Your Spirit” – Blessings – Rene

  • Kenny

    More Energy?? They are not at the races at all in Rome. I cringe when I hear they are about to issue statements. Nothing wrong with most of what they say, but the way its presented, and coupled together leaves a lot to be desired!
    The media just love it of course. Own goal after own goal…..

  • Brentgoodman

    It seems to me that the church is in some kind of trance!, not able to coordinate any kind of coherent defence. A pack of bloodthirsty wolves surround it looking for a kill,to draw blood.For too long we have kept our eyes closed, as this has been building up for years.What we are seeing is the natural and logical progression of the left and its thinking.It does not want to talk or dialouge The church is a hinderance to human happiness and one way or another must go I dont think it geta any simpler than that!

  • MJCarroll

    I find it strange that the concept of slick PR is deemed something that as always been lacking at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II had a mastery of PR and dealing with the press that could have given Tony Blair a run for his money. JPII had many of his speeches proof read without question to avoid glaring errors. On top of this his acting skills from his formative years had the press and public alike eating out of his hand. In the absence of JPII there is not a need for slick PR but surely a desperate need for a dose of common sense at the Vatican press office.