U.S. bishops plan PR campaign to soften image

Thu Jun 14, 2012 2:33pm EDT

* Bishop: We need more sophistication in our messaging

* Several say church seen as too confrontational

* U.S. church plans to be more active on Facebook, Twitter

By Stephanie Simon

ATLANTA, June 14 (Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops announced plans o n T hursday for an ambitious public relations drive to soften and shape their image and reach out to the younger generation using social media.

In a lively session at their national conference in Atlanta, several bishops expressed dismay that they are slow to get their talking points across and are perceived as too confrontational.

The recent Vatican crackdown on the largest organization of U.S. nuns turned into a public relations "debacle" for the bishops, said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.

He complained that the Vatican's decision to put bishops in charge of rooting out "radical feminist" elements within the nuns' group was linked in the secular media to unrelated events, such as the bishops' investigation of the Girl Scouts, with negative consequences for the church's image.

The bishops are looking into concerns that the Girl Scouts sometimes work with groups that promote access to contraception. The U.S. church's image also has been hurt sex abuse scandals.

"Our church, both in the States and at the Holy See, does not do a good job of communicating around controversial topics," O'Malley said. "We need more help and more sophistication in our messaging."

Added Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, "We need to teach in a way that's not combative, but inviting."

While several bishops said they wanted to push their views directly to the public, without mediation by the press, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, urged his brethren to remain open to all forums of communication.

"It's important to engage people who have positions that are possibly different than ours, so that we can build coalitions," Kicanas said. "We shouldn't always be overly sensitive about criticism."

The bishops' public relations campaign is still in the early stages but tentative plans include appointing a high-profile, always-on-call spokesman and creating a more active presence on Twitter and Facebook. Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City also announced the launch of a private social network for bishops only - a sort of Facebook of the magisterium.

The campaign "will be a tremendous expense," said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta. "But the greater cost, I believe, is not doing it."

The bishops are moving to post more Catholic resources online as well. On Thursday, they announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has sold nearly 1 million print copies, has been posted on the Conference of Catholic Bishops' website in e-book format.

Outreach efforts also include a Spanish-language video, now in production, that will take the form of a tasteful soap opera, tracing one family's interactions over generations. The drama aims to promote traditional marriage and combat rhetoric that frames gay marriage as an issue of equality, civil rights or justice, said Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland.

The Spanish video is part of a broader campaign promoted with the slogan "Marriage: Unique for a Reason." It includes several English-language videos already distributed to dioceses. (Editing by Bill Trott)

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