Reputation Repair for the Church

March 04, 2013

Reputation Repair for the Church

vaticanBill Keller wrote this fascinating piece in The New York Times about how the Catholic Church could repair its reputation. As he points out, the Church operates just like a business with more than one million workers, one billion or more customers, more outlets than Starbucks, more real estate than Trump and a powerful lobbying arm. And like many companies today, it just lost its CEO and has the opportunity to reset its reputation and restore its luster now.
Keller asked several consultants how they would go about advising the Church to repair its reputation as they name a new Pope and move forward. Here are their suggestions:

1. Find the right new pope. One with drive and charisma who is communications savvy. One who is more than a caretaker. A Pope who is dynamic as well as a road warrior with unending energy to persuade customers back into the fold.

2. Manage the culprits out. Out with those who have sullied the Church’s reputation. Or as they say, “managing out” the ones responsible for the abuses of recent years.  This would include full disclosure behind how predatory priests were allowed to stay within the institution. And third, hire a highly-regarded compliance or ethics officer who would have full support from the top. Keller quotes Wharton’s Michael Useem and his experiences helping to clean up the Tyco mess of years past.

3. Understand the past but look ahead towards the future.  One consultant suggested a big time summit or strategic review that would be responsible for developing a new and improved Church strategy, mission and values with a plan to execute accordingly.

4. Adopt a global/local point of view. The article describes one consultant’s idea to let its 220,000 parishes make their own decisions attuned to local customs and preferences. “Rome could encourage the parishes to be laboratories of worship.” Interesting idea. Beta labs full of women participating, gays welcomed, local music.

5. Go social. Bring the Church into the digital age…fast.  I did not realize this until Keller pointed it out but Pope Benedict tweeted as @Pontifex but only 35 times despite having 1.5 million followers. A social media strategy would go far in encouraging meet ups and spreading news and information to the committed. I have just the right document for him too….our research on social CEOs. Perhaps the Church could get some lessons from President Obama’s social media machine.

6. Get PR support. Interesting since that’s the business I am in. Keller rightfully states: “Its stock response to criticism from without or dissent from within has been to been to drop into a defensive crouch, stonewall or go negative. That can come across as bullying and arrogant — in other words, not very Christian.” Media training and message development would definitely be high on the list here.

What would I add to this list..

7. Build a solid crisis plan that raises red flags when early warning signs show up and design rapid response mechanisms. Figure out how to stop the leaks and understand how it happened in the first place so it does not happen again.

8. Measure the Church’s reputation now when it is at its most challenged so that the Church could mark progress as a new Pope begins and reform makes it to the agenda in the year(s) ahead.

9. Commit to a strategic internal communiations plan that engages its customers and followers. Get everyone on the same page. Start by going on a listening tour and asking what needs to change and what can stay the same. Feed back that information and describe how the Church will tackle its greatest problems and improve on its strengths.

10. Build a reputation advisory council that can help restore the Church’s reputation for the long-term. This is serious business.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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