The Vatican media operation has often gone so badly wrong that it created embarrassment which eventually became the story

The Pope yesterday gave a speech to the assembled members of the Vatican’s relatively new Secretariat for Communications, which can be read here.

It is quite a good speech, technical at times, which reflects the overall strategy at present in the Vatican, which is somehow or another to mould into one operation the previously diverse and presumably sometimes warring fiefdoms that covered various aspect of communications. This is not simply a matter of making economies of scale and ironing our duplications, but rather creating a unity of vision. That this should succeed is a matter of immense importance to us all.

One of the things that blighted the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI was the failure of the people in the Vatican to communicate properly, and to correct false impressions. Quite often the media operation went so badly wrong that it created embarrassment which eventually became the story. One such example was the failure to google Bishop Richard Williamson before announcing the lifting of his excommunication.  There were many more such examples.

There were quite a few reasons for this failure to communicate effectively. It does not help when your media operation is run by people who think “il mondo anglo-sassone” (as the Italians call the English-speaking world) is somehow marginal to the Church’s interests. In fact, it is precisely there, whether people like it or not, that the big stories happen. The American global networks cover the world, and are the go-to source not just in America but throughout the developing world too. (The same could be said for the BBC.)

Italians have a residual distrust of newspapers and television for precise local reasons. Some Italian newspapers have a history of anti-clericalism, and a lot of Italian television is trash verging on the pornographic. But this is precisely the world in which the Vatican has to set up its stall. Its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, is about as exciting as Pravda, though it has improved of late.

However, it has to be said the Italian Catholic Church – not the Vatican – does much better. Famiglia Cristiana, which is produced by the Pauline order, is amongst Italy’s top selling weekly magazines, and makes good reading. As for the Vatican website, that really does look as if it is the creation of someone who does not like websites and who does not think the Internet of lasting importance.

Ask yourself: when did you ever hear anyone talking about the story they read in the Osservatore, the thing they saw on Vatican television, the exciting things they discovered on the Vatican website, or how much they enjoyed listening to Vatican radio?

The real leap needed to ensure real reform is as follows: the Vatican has to abandon the idea that people come to us, and replace it with the idea that we go to them. In other words, it needs to stop thinking that people who fail to log on to its website for more than a few minutes, or who fail to buy its paper more than once, or who never listen to its radio station, are somehow at fault. The client is always right. If they are not coming to you, and in this crowded marketplace, there are so many other places they can go, then you need to change. This is quite a hard one for those who surround the throne of Peter to take on board.

Meanwhile there is some hope. It is good to know that, for example, people from EWTN, a huge success story in Catholic communications, are members of the new Secretariat. Public diplomacy, as the Americans call it, is vital. Pope Francis is of course popular with the world, but Catholic teaching is not, and that remains a challenge.