The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the “A” Goes to…

 The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the A Goes to...THE PR VERDICT’S “A” (PR PERFECT) grade for 2013 goes to Pope Francis, the Argentinian priest who appears to be single-handedly revamping the priorities – and image – of the Catholic Church.

What a difference a year makes. The church was in chaos in February when Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy – something not done in over 600 years. Benedict cited advanced age, though the media speculated his decision was linked to an alleged secret gay network within the Vatican and/or depression after his personal assistant leaked confidential information to the media.

Enter Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Latin American and first Jesuit priest to be named pope. He was an upstart from the beginning: standing to accept his cardinals’ congratulations instead of sitting on the papal throne; sporting a simple white cassock at his first public appearance; and becoming the first Pope Francis, a name he chose to honor St. Francis of Assisi, himself known for his dedication to the poor.

Pope Francis has sent a consistent message to his flock: get back to basics. On Easter, he bathed and kissed the feet of a group that included women and Muslims. On his first trip official trip abroad, he carried his own bag and insisted on limited security. He recently issued a blueprint for the church that denounced “the idolatry of money” and urged Catholics to stop obsessing over issues like same-sex marriage and contraception. Both Time Magazine and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication, named him “Person of the Year.”

THE PR TAKEAWAY: If you can’t reinvent, reinvigorate. No pope can rewrite the Old Testament, but he can take the church in a new direction. It’s no secret the Catholic Church – sullied for more than a decade with child-molestation scandals and a dwindling base – desperately needed a leader who could help close old wounds and inspire new hope. Pope Francis has all the  ingredients for great PR: conviction of his beliefs, consistent messaging, and a personality brimming with charm and enthusiasm. For the Catholic church’s PR, Pope Francis is a nothing short of a godsend.

New Pope: Better Than Classic Pope?

 New Pope: Better Than Classic Pope?

The PR Verdict: “A” (Gold Star) for Pope Francis and his PR launch.

And the new pope’s PR machine is off and running. This past Sunday was Pope Francis’s first Easter, and his first opportunity to show the world how he is going to change the image of the papacy. So how did he do?

The headlines were impressive. There was Pope Francis with 12 inmates at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome for an Easter ceremony. Kneeling before the group, including women and Muslims, he bathed and kissed their feet. The news reverberated around the world with Pope Francis saying, “The one who is highest up must be at the service of others.”

Other news: He has declined to wear the golden cross reserved for popes and has said no to the traditional red papal shoes. He continues to live in modest accommodations instead of the regal papal apartments and is talking of an outward-looking church being of service to others. So far, the Vatican is using these simple, humble tactics to position Pope Francis as a breath of fresh, revitalizing air for the Catholic church. Yet there has been no real change of policy. The new Pope feels different, but the papal message remains unchanged.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Pope Francis and his PR launch turning the media spotlight away from well-worn negative allegations.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Tactics over substance. No one doubts the conservative credentials of the new pope. His doctrinaire views on the traditional hot button issues – abortion, ordination of women, and birth control – are in no way a break from popes past. But tactically, he is changing the conversation about the Catholic Church. With a return to humility and service, he has shifted the focus from doctrinal issues to something less contentious. With no change to policy, this Pope has changed the communication of his message to something far more inclusive and less contentious. Tactical PR battles are often overlooked by the weight of substantive issues, but often it is the tone and emphasis in communication that makes all the difference.  The Republican Party, currently looking to refashion its image and messaging, may want to take note.

Boy Scouts PR Move: More Talk, Less Action

 Boy Scouts PR Move: More Talk, Less Action

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the Boy Scouts of America.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) got a lucky PR break last week. As the Catholic Church prepared for the conclave, the PR spotlight was turned away from the US organization that continues to ban openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders. The conclave inadvertently bought the BSA some breathing space as the Boy Scouts, just like the Catholic Church, grapples with the complex challenge of how to please its diverse constituents while remaining relevant for future generations. The BSA was out of the  PR heat – at least for a week.

The BSA stumbled earlier this year after a press leak, later confirmed, that suggested change was imminent on its policy regarding openly gay members. In fact, the BSA Board was deeply divided. Its solution? It deferred its decision and retreated from the public eye to regroup.

Now, in part to follow up on the recent controversy, the BSA is surveying adult Scouts and their families about the role of gay members and leaders in Scouting. Described as “neutral and not intended … to provide a certain outcome,’” the BSA is at pains to point out that it is now listening to its members. But time will tell whether being in listening mode helps the BSA cure its PR ills.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the Boy Scouts of America. Listening to members is fine, but sometimes leadership calls for just that: leadership.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Change the debate to change the crisis. Shifting the terms of the debate is a hallmark of good PR, and it is hard to quibble with asking members for their views; a survey just might identify attitudes and beliefs that can lead to meaningful discussions. In the long run, though, more will be needed. Sometimes leadership requires making a tough decision and taking a public stand. For an organization committed to building the minds, morals, and characters of America’s future leaders, this is one  leadership lesson it can’t afford to ignore.

Regret Only from the Irish Government

 Regret Only from the Irish Government

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the Irish Government.

A report issued this week by the Irish government detailed the state’s involvement in the so-called “Magdalene laundries” that operated for most of the 20th century. More than 30,000 girls and women were remanded to these institutions – ostensibly halfway houses for the “misguided,” where they were sent for “rehabilitation.”

The Irish government has now acknowledged these laundries were nothing more than state-sanctioned sweatshops. Females from nine to 89  were barely fed, detained illegally and had their babies taken from them. The laundries, the report said, were managed by Catholic nuns and kept operational in part thanks to “significant state involvement,” including contracts from various Irish ministries.

In the face of such damning evidence, one would expect the report to be accompanied by a fulsome apology, particularly since the abuses persisted as late as the mid-1990s. However, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenney stopped well short of a mea culpa. Under questioning in Irish Parliament, Kenney merely said he was sorry the women had suffered the “stigma” attached to being in the laundries. This lackluster expression of semi-regret infuriated victims and their supporters and guaranteed that the issue continues to scandalize and divide. This was not the closing chapter all parties were hoping for.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco). Has the Irish government – and the inexorably intertwined Catholic Church – learned absolutely nothing from the church’s sex abuse scandals?

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A good “sorry” speaks volumes. Whether it’s a German company admitting involvement in the Holocaust or the Japanese government apologizing to “comfort women,” acknowledging culpability regarding past indignities is now a well-trod path. When making such monumental admissions, an immediate and heartfelt apology is common sense and PR 101, not to mention the morally and ethically correct action. Acknowledging that the transgressions occurred is half the battle; taking responsibility is the critical other half. For the Irish Prime Minister, a review of the Act of Contrition is in order. Until he does so, this sorry chapter of Irish history remains unfinished and festering – a particular embarrassment during The Gathering, a year-long celebration designed to promote tourism. A sorry state, indeed.