March 15, 2016

When Something Goes Wrong

“No comment” is not the answer to poor planning.

In a decade as a diocesan communicator, I was the point person on several occasions when something went wrong and the media wanted information. I also spent eight years as the one asking the questions as a journalist, including covering the abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

So here’s the thing: No comment means you’re either hiding something or you’re not prepared. Regardless, in situations that are ugly, with possible victims or misconduct, no comment isn’t the answer.

I’m not advocating for throwing open the doors and divulging every scrap of information. Often in cases of alleged misconduct, there are privacy concerns, for both the victim and the accused. But as leaders and representatives of the Church/church, we have an obligation to be honest and as forthcoming as possible.

What does that mean? Well, first, communication planning must be a part of the process, not an afterthought. If a leader in your congregation (clergy or lay) is accused of misconduct (including financial or sexual, criminal activity, or drug/alcohol addictions), the other leaders (vestry, diocesan, etc.) should immediately pull in a communications expert. This person can advise on how to clearly communicate to the stakeholders in a way that honors the individuals directly involved in the problem as well as those who will be affected by it. In addition, if the issue is something that will garner media attention, the communication expert can help craft an honest, succinct release.

If you don’t include the communication expert early in the process, you’re essentially handcuffing and blindfolding him or her. You’re asking the person to communicate effectively without context and information. Imagine asking someone to describe a movie without letting them watch or hear it.

While it’s true that some elements of a situation might be confidential, I would also argue that if you don’t trust the communication person enough to share the full story, then that person probably shouldn’t be in charge of communication.

Second, a good communication person will not allow a no comment to be the primary response to any crisis. Even if much of the situation must be kept private, the public response can still be pastoral and, if necessary, contrite. When this is the case, the communication person might answer with something like: “We’re aware of the situation. We take any allegation very seriously, and we are investigating. We are following our procedures, which include … (placing the person on leave, reporting to the secular authorities, etc.) We hold the victim(s) in our prayers, and we will continue to update you as we know/are able to release more information.”

Over the years, I’ve had to talk with the media on issues of clergy misconduct, including solicitation of an undercover officer, solicitation of a prostitute, and allegations of abuse. In every scenario (and with the full support of diocesan leaders), I was honest and upfront, answering every question to the best of my ability and returning every media call.

Newspapers ran stories on the situations but normally just for one day or two. Conversely, as a reporter, my stories about the no comments and cover-up in the Roman church filled the front pages for weeks.

Here’s my urgent plea: Don’t compound a bad situation by closing ranks and shutting the doors. Transparency, used with caution and care, is the model. Anything else is not only bad policy but also anathema to Christian principles. 

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