Public Relations. Cardinal Pell is a PR Disaster!

By: Joan MacDougal - March 4, 2016


Public Relations 101 – Understand how your spokesperson relates to their audience!

Your public relations is vital to your commercial success. Whether you’re called to answer questions to a Royal Commission or asked questions by shareholders at a shareholder meeting, your key spokesperson has to be able to relate and empathize with their audience. It is catastrophic for any business with a public profile of any kind to ignore the consequences of a spokesperson who can not gauge an audience and respond accordingly. This is regardless of the complexity or likely unpopularity of the message to be delivered. Which is why Cardinal Pell has been a complete PR disaster for the Catholic Church. The damage will be felt for years to come and for many who have witnessed his efforts to manage the sexual abuse issues of the church, the damage is irreparable!

This is not a comment on the hideous crimes of pedophile priests and my heart goes out to all the victims who have ever suffered. The question I would like to explore is how someone who clearly can’t communicate came to hold the most senior position in the Catholic Church in Australia.

The Royal Commission has exposed sexual abuse across many institutions such as the Anglican Church and the Salvation Army. So why has the most intense focus has been on the Catholic Church? The answer is simple. The leader of the Catholic Church at the time, Cardinal George Pell has handled the situation with a frightening level of ineptitude.

His first mistake was to try and manage the issue of sexual abuse in-house. What has transpired as a result is an absolute demonstration of how far removed from their public’s perception the Churches management and advisers were.

A good and independent public relations adviser would have identified the distance between the institution and its audience very quickly. It would have put in place strategies to help Pell reach out in a way to heal and comfort victims, which is the response every Australian wanted to see.

To use in-house insurance companies to help mitigate damages against the Church will have a far higher cost to the Church in the long run. And while all victims of abuse should be entitled to appropriate compensation, no amount of money will bring healing.

Christian values such as compassion, contrition, humility and virtue are what was needed from Cardinal Pell and as far as the public is concerned he has failed on all counts.

I have heard many of my colleagues defend Cardinal Pell saying he has been crucified by the media. That it has been ‘trial by media’ but I don’t agree. Cardinal Pell has failed because he did not try to use the media to reach a broken audience desperate to hear the right messages from him.

Here is a very simplified version of how it should have played out –

  • As the leader of the Catholic Church in Australia I accept full responsibility for past and present crimes against the innocent in our community
  • On behalf of the Catholic church I want to apologise to the victims and to all those of the Christian faith for the hurt and pain these crimes and how they were handled; have caused
  • Throughout my time as a priest I have from time to time been aware of crimes being perpetrated. I was not always in a position within the church to prevent them, but I now recognise that not reporting these crimes to the authorities was a terrible lapse in judgement, one I truly regret.
  • When I was finally in a position to take action on behalf of the church against issues of sexual abuse I did take action. I now realise however that the path I chose to follow was ill advised and a far cry from what the victims and all Catholics in Australia expected of me.
  • I accept that in relation to all matters surrounding issues of sexual abuse I have failed in my role as head of the Catholic Church and I apologise profusely to all those affected by my failure.

I don’t know George Pell personally and I don’t know what advice and counsel he has sought of late. I do wonder whether he could have stood tall and delivered the commentary detailed above. It is certainly the approach I would have recommended.

So what can the Catholic Church take away from this?

Public relations is extremely important and you must know and react to exactly how you are being perceived in the public domain.

What can all businesses learn from the Churches mistakes?

When you choose a leader for your business or company, they must be able to stand tall and relate to your customers and the public in the most difficult of all circumstances. Assess their public relations skills.

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