Four days ago, Benedict XVI said the words no Pope has said in 700 years: “I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome”. A simple sentence that has had a powerful effect on millions of people all over the world, including the media and the Vatican itself. The general reaction to the Pope’s resignation has been a mixture of shock and disbelief. Even those who are highest up within the Catholic Church admit that they were surprised by the news. Given the consequences that this action could have for the Vatican, we must ask ourselves how all of this plays out from a PR standpoint.
For the sake of analysis, let us refer to Grunig’s generally accepted model of Excellent PR. According to him, organizations need to scan their environment and adapt to it in order to avoid crises, survive and prosper. They must be as transparent as possible and keep in constant contact with their stakeholders so as to satisfy their needs as well as their own.
The Vatican has never been known for being transparent about its inner workings or for easily adapting to change. Whether you agree with his policies or not, it could be argued that the current Pope tried to do his part in terms of PR by acknowledging and apologizing for past cases of pedophilia within the Catholic Church and by trying to make it more accessible by opening a Twitter account and organizing large personal gatherings with its followers. But in general it’s safe to say that the Vatican remains as inaccessible and mysterious as always. All decisions are made behind closed doors, nobody knows about its finances or political doings. Communications are one-sided and lean more towards propaganda than towards conversations which allow feedback. On top of that, various scandals have tarnished the image of the Catholic Church, which has been openly criticized in the media.
While the Vatican has been successful in playing up the idea that Benedict XVI feels old and worn out and that he doesn’t want the media to bear witness to his failing health, rumors about a crisis within the Church have persisted. These might have been avoided if the Vatican or the Pope himself had given more signs that his resignation was a possibility. In fact, Benedict XVI had already made comments to Peter Seewald (author of “The light of the World“) about popes having the right and the obligation to resign if they consider that they are no longer physically able to carry out their duties. Why did the people in charge of public affairs not pick up on this? Why didn’t they pave the way and make this transition easier and more understandable to their millions of stakeholders?
We might never get the answers to these questions, but one thing is for sure: this is the opposite of the “Excellent PR” model. It’s understandable that an institution as ancient and conservative as the Catholic Church should find it difficult to evolve and adapt in Grunig’s terms, but in a time when the public is demanding transparency and honesty, this organization is no different from any other. News such as this can send a message of institutional weakness and conflict to internal and external stakeholders. The Vatican needs the understanding and support of both in order to succeed, and should be doing everything possible to achieve them. Even if that means doing something as radical as practicing good PR.