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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.

Graphic by Jessamyn Rubio

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.

Anne CurleyCurley 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.

Q: In your article, you describe an extraordinary scene when the priest got up and announced this at Mass.

It was a very human thing, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences I have had as a communicator. The pastor was understandably very emotional and, I’m sure, somewhat nervous about standing in front of his parishioners and sharing this devastating information. You could hear his voice quivering. You could see how troubled he was, and just the mere fact that he had the courage to do it drew a huge amount of sympathy from the congregation. In fact, he received standing ovations at every Mass. Maybe ovation isn’t the right word, because certainly, nobody was happy to hear what he had to say, but people were very supportive and very appreciative of the respect that he showed them by coming to them and sharing the information in a very forthcoming way.

Q: Some Sundays the lectionary fits so well. Your article says the Gospel reading that day was Matthew 10.26: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”

I absolutely felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in that experience, and it was -- you can never say that it was a good experience, because, of course, it all revolved around a horrible situation -- but it was a faith-building experience for that community because it was handled so well.

Q: It really gets to the first principle you talked about, to remember that these are not primarily PR problems, but human problems and human tragedies.

That’s right. The public has become very cynical and disgusted with all the attempts that are made to spin the truth and to manipulate public opinion. The public is too smart for that. But because that’s such a common practice, you get a lot of credit if you’re straight with people.

Q: Even if the subject is as difficult as clergy sexual abuse.

Right. And as I said before, people know that the history of the church and the history of the human race is a pretty mixed bag when it comes to the tension between good and evil. No institution is immune to having terrible mistakes made.

Q: What about new media and new technologies? Do they have a role in crisis communication?

Certainly, there are situations where new media like Twitter, for example, could be very helpful in keeping people up to speed with what’s happening, hour by hour, in a flood or some other disaster. But when it comes to dealing with past mistakes that are coming to light, my instinct is to use face-to-face communication and other reliable transmitters like snail mail and e-mail to get the word out. There is no substitute for face-to-face. It needs to be part of every strategy. You can’t rely on it entirely, because you usually can’t reach everyone you need to reach through face-to-face, but that is always my starting point.

Q: What are the typical crises that come up in churches?

Misappropriation of funds is probably the most common, and then inappropriate clergy behavior. That could span anything from sex abuse to alcoholism or mistakes that human beings make, but that seem like a crisis when it involves a member of the clergy.

Q: It strikes me that many of the principles you’ve talked about would also be useful in typical church situations that fall far short of a public crisis, maybe just those internal squabbles that happen in congregational life.

Absolutely. When you think about the tactics that I’m suggesting -- do the right thing, involve the right people and be as transparent as possible -- those are good principles for any communication within an organization. Anytime you have the impulse to sweep something under the rug, hoping that it won’t come out, you need to really re-examine your assumptions, because those are the impulses that are most apt to get you in trouble.

Q: Can you tell us more about doing communication in the right sequence, of communicating with some people before others?

There’s lots of research about the key dimensions of respect, and one of the most important ways we demonstrate respect is by keeping people informed. People don’t like to be kept in the dark about something they feel they have a right to know. They don’t like to be the last to know if they feel they should have been among the first. So it’s important to think through the right sequence for releasing information. That doesn’t mean you have to have a long interval between informing one group and then the next group. You need to look at it in terms of a set of concentric circles, and you start with the people at the center and work your way out from that.

Q: Should congregations or dioceses or other Christian institutions have a crisis communication plan in place that lays out these and other contingencies?

Scenario planning is an excellent idea. You don’t want to have to figure all this out when you’re in the midst of a crisis, if possible. But the proper communication sequence can depend upon the nature of the crisis. You can’t come up with a one-size-fits-all plan, but you can certainly take a common crisis scenario such as misappropriation of funds and think through, “How would we respond to that? Who would be part of the decision-making process? Who would need to be informed, and in what order?” The same for clergy sex abuse scandals.

Q: And you say that even in a crisis, there are real opportunities for strengthening the church?

I would never wish a crisis on any organization, but if you handle a crisis well, there’s no doubt in my mind that you will emerge from it stronger. If you look at perhaps the most famous corporate example, Johnson & Johnson came out with a better reputation for having had the Tylenol scare than if it had not occurred, because they handled it so well, with so much respect for the consumer, that it earned them a great deal of trust. The same is true for a church or any other institution when they are able to rise to the occasion in a crisis.