Positive change

  • August 8, 2012

The Vatican has made commendable efforts to integrate modern communication tools into its daily routines. Even the Pope has embraced the Internet and encouraged such social media innovations as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Yet it’s been like entering a Ferrari in the Formula 1 racing circuit without hiring a professional driver.

That has changed, however, with the recent appointment of a seasoned journalist who brings impressive newspaper and television credentials into the new role of senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Greg Burke, 52, left Fox News to take the wheel of the Vatican’s communication machine. His daunting challenge is to steer the Church clear of the public relations potholes that, in recent years, have so often jarred all Catholics.

Hiring a qualified professional for this critical role is long overdue. The Church has been hammered in the international media almost from the day in 2005 that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, chided in the press as the Vatican’s bulldog, became Pope Benedict XVI. In countless media accounts, the new Pope suffered in comparisons to his popular predecessor, John Paul II. It has been a losing battle since then to usher the secular media past its bias and stereotyping and have them report fairly and accurately on the Pope and Church events.

That now become’s Burke’s job. His resume suggests he is up to the challenge. He came to Rome in 1988 as a correspondent for the U.S.-based National Catholic Register and has covered the Vatican ever since. After a decade as a Time magazine correspondent,  he joined Fox News in 2001 and has covered the papacy extensively, developing a reputation for fairness and accuracy. Burke, a member of Opus Dei, calls himself an old-fashioned mid-western Catholic.

A sense of what he faces was evident in a snide account of his hiring in a prominent London, England, newspaper. It read: “The scandal-plagued Vatican has hired a U.S. news specialist to drag its public-relations operations out of the dark ages.” The Vatican is hardly “scandal-plagued” or stuck in the “dark ages” but those types of messages are consistently delivered to Catholics and non-Catholics by the secular media.

Burke’s unenviable task is to not only reverse the negative messaging but, in a dizzying world of media overload and sound bites, he must show Vatican leaders how to effectively communicate the Church’s message. That won’t be easy. It requires a confident communications strategy to rebuild the Church’s image, but also a resolve to respond quickly, directly and candidly to harmful, often inaccurate stories about the Church.

Burke acknowledges that counselling the Pope and his advisors is “a little bit scary.” He says any turnaround will take time, but putting a qualified professional behind the wheel is a positive start.

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