Graphic by Jessamyn Rubio
Anne Curley: Do the right thing
In the midst of church scandal or other crisis, leaders need to remember: People expect the truth, says communication expert Anne Curley.
September 7, 2010 | Communication consultant Anne Curley would never wish a crisis on any institution, church-related or otherwise, but handled well, a crisis can be an opportunity for growth in faithfulness and trust, she said. The key, especially for church leaders, is to remember that people can take the truth. They expect the truth.
Generally, laity and the public understand that mistakes happen and that institutions and their leaders are fallible, Curley said. When something bad happens, what’s important is that leaders handle it in an open, respectful way.
Curley is president of Curley Communication, a Milwaukee-based consulting practice that specializes in change management and crisis management. Before establishing her company, she served in top communication positions at major corporations, including director of worldwide communication for SC Johnson & Son Inc. and first vice president and director of public affairs for Firstar Corporation, a financial services company. Before entering the field of corporate communication, she was business editor of The Milwaukee Journal.
Curley writes and speaks frequently on best practices in strategic communication and has made presentations on crisis communication to various organizations, including the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. She was a founding member of the Jesuit Conduct Review Board established by that order's Wisconsin Province and provides crisis communication counsel to several religious orders.
She spoke with Faith & Leadership about crisis communication in churches and church-related institutions. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: What do you mean by “crisis communication”?
I define it as the planning and execution of a communication strategy in the context of either a potential or actual crisis. Crisis is a relative term, but basically it is anything that presents a risk of damaging the reputation of an individual or organization.
Q: It seems like crisis communication is often done poorly. Why is it so difficult to do well?
There are plenty of examples of good communication in crisis situations, but we don’t think about them, because they don’t become a focal point like the bad examples do. But also, people who handle crisis communication on their own often react in ways that are understandable but ill-advised.
For instance, the most common mistake is to try to either cover up or minimize bad news rather than getting out in front of it and controlling it -- doing what you can to control how the news is released and positioned. There is a natural human tendency to want to avoid dealing with bad news, but that is typically the worst course of action in a situation where your reputation is potentially on the line. You’re much better off getting out in front of it and being the one who manages the communication rather than just having it done to you. It’s hard to come out looking good if you’re not the one to first communicate that you’ve got a problem.
But that’s not easy. There’s a real fear of making matters worse. It’s hard to come forward and say, “We made a mistake.” Who wants to admit that? It can be hugely embarrassing. People fear humiliation or losing face more than anything. For some people, it’s a fate worse than death -- which is why, if the crisis is serious enough, some people deal with it by doing away with themselves.
What I’ve often noticed among clergy who handle crisis communication is what I would characterize as a lack of faith in the laity and the public to be able to understand that mistakes happen and that people in institutions are fallible.
In the Catholic Church the phrase is, “We don’t want to scandalize the faithful,” but that attitude has gotten us into a lot of trouble over the years. What we should be saying is, “The faithful weren’t born yesterday.” They understand that stuff happens. What’s important is that after something bad has happened, we deal with it in an open, respectful way. Ultimately what people remember, often more than the initial offense, is, “How did we handle it?” People can take the truth. People expect the truth.
Q: You’ve worked in corporate communication and represented both corporate clients and congregations, parishes, and dioceses in your own practice. Is crisis communication any different for churches than for corporate clients?
There are three fundamental principles that apply regardless, whether it’s a church or a corporation. The most important, first, is to do the right thing, to not look at a crisis as primarily a PR problem. It is a human problem, and what we want to do is to treat the people involved right.
Secondly, it is important to involve the right people in making decisions and in communicating information. People who involve too few people -- and sometimes in the church we want to keep it among ourselves -- and others who involve too many people and want every detail shouted from the rooftop are both making mistakes. You have to think through who needs to be part of the decision-making process and who needs to be the focus of our communication.
The third principle is transparency -- to overcome the impulse to sugarcoat things, to try to be as objective and factual as possible. Most people have a very sensitive internal meter that tells them when they’re being misled, and they don’t like it. People do not like to be played. They want to be given credit for being intelligent. Your best course of action is to put the information out there and let people absorb it and move on to somebody else’s scandal.
Q: The clergy sexual abuse crisis has presented an ongoing communication challenge for the Catholic Church. In an article for the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, “Communication in a Time of Crisis,” you wrote about one such incident that was virtually a textbook case of how to do crisis communication well. Can you tell us about that?
In this particular case, there was a parish in Illinois that discovered that a former pastor had abused several altar boys back in the 1970s, and two of the victims had come forward and contacted the Order of Franciscans, who staffed the parish, asking for compensation and threatening to go to the news media if they didn’t receive it. So I was contacted by the Franciscans, who at first asked me simply to draft a standby statement they could have on hand if they were approached by the news media. Again, it’s a very common impulse to not want to proactively stir things up.
We talked it over. I can’t work for clients who aren’t willing to do the right thing, but it was obvious to me that these Franciscans wanted to do what was right even if it meant they went bankrupt. So they had their priorities straight, and I was happy to work with them. The first thing that I advised was that standby statements are often not the way to go. For one thing, it’s like having the sword of Damocles hanging over your head. You’re wondering every day if this will be the day a reporter calls.
Secondly, if you wait until someone else initiates publicity in a crisis, you’re immediately cast in a defensive role and you’re responding to events. But if you take the bull by the horns and pick the time and the place and the reporter that you’re going to work with to communicate about the problems, you will have far greater influence on how the information comes out.
Q: So what did you do?
One of our first steps was to convene the parish council on a confidential basis. One mistake institutions often make is to create an ad hoc group or use an inner circle to plan their crisis response instead of using whatever advisory or governing body is already in place. So we went to the parish council and laid the facts out for them and shared a proposal for how we thought we ought to respond, and that worked very well. They were a good barometer for how the larger parish community would respond, and we had a wonderful give-and-take discussion about how we ought to handle this, and they agreed we needed to get ahead of the situation.
We agreed to communicate first to parishioners and not to go to the media. It’s an organic approach. You have to take a look at the particular institution as an organism and say, “Well, what are the proper channels? What is the proper ripple effect that ought to occur when we’re releasing important information?”
That is especially essential when you’re dealing with people who are part of a church or similar community. It can be devastating if they find out about a crisis through the media rather than from their own community.
So we directed all our communication at the parishioners -- from the pulpit at Mass, and also in a letter to all parishioners to make sure that everyone was informed.
We did that knowing that reporters would hear about it, and that was fine with us. That was a better way for the media to learn about this than if we had gone directly to them. In fact, as a result of the approach we used, the story in the newspaper was framed not in terms of “Former Pastor Charged with Sex Crimes” but rather “Current Pastor Shares Sad Story with Parishioners.” The whole context shifted to be much more favorable, because it focused on the fact that the Franciscans were taking the initiative to inform parishioners about what they had learned and to encourage anyone who had additional information to come forward.