In those years when I was an advice-giver, a reporter once asked me how I defined good public relations. After a moment's reflection, I said, "Good public relations is doing the right thing and telling people about it." The reporter liked that well enough to quote me favorably in the piece he was writing.
Note that the definition has two parts: good performance and good communication. Both are required.
Recently a young man heading to Rome to study communications (at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross) told me that he was thinking of doing a dissertation on media relations for the Church and wanted to include some case histories illustrating good practice. Did I have suggestions?
Among the examples he had in mind were the way Church communicators rose to the challenge at the time of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, and the successful efforts undertaken to blunt the potential harm of the movie version of The Da Vinci Code. I suggested that he consider adding to the list the media relations programs for the Church-sponsored international World Youth Days of recent years. It should be a worthwhile dissertation.
From these instances of good media relations for the Church — as well as from instances of disasters — several simple conclusions can be drawn. Let me mention three.
First, find good people to do this kind of work. By good people, I mean people with solid professional experience — preferably, in journalism as well as public relations — plus loyalty to the Church and high ethical standards. This isn't an occupation for someone who sees a job in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy either as a sinecure or a chance to push some line of his or her own.
Second, encourage the PR professionals to speak their minds candidly to the guy in charge when problems arise. In media relations as in other fields, there can easily be a strong temptation to curry favor by telling the boss only what he or she wants to hear. In the long run — and often in the short run, too — the results of doing that usually are deadly. Remember, if you're going to pay a hired gun, you only get your money's worth by letting him shoot straight.
Third, if you've got a good PR person who gives honest advice, listen to what he or she has to say.
That doesn't mean public relations is in charge. The decision maker still gets to decide. But at a time when media coverage of the Church is so enormously important, media relations advice should carry at least as much weight in decision making as advice from any other area of expertise. Some of the disasters of recent years might have been mitigated, if not prevented, had that rule been routinely observed.