Diocesan Communicators - Best Practices
Experts agree about the need for consistent messaging and often recommend designation of a diocesan spokesperson as the public source for all messages. Experts further advance the idea that the bishop, or someone already involved in a Title IV process, should not be that spokesperson. The diocesan communicator becomes the logical choice where possible. It is also suggested that a diocese partner with another diocese that may have a communicator skilled in crisis communication if those skills are not available locally. All agree on the need for proactive pre-planning and to have a Title IV response team with communications as a major contributor to that team.
To suggest a consistent message delivered by a single voice is not to suggest the diocesan communicator act alone in formulating messages. Throughout this website, there are multiple recommendations for a trained Title IV response team. This is another area where such a team is invaluable. Each member can offer input to the communicator, who is then able to facilitate and develop the message while respecting the integrity of the process. With careful pre-crisis planning, the communicator has the criteria to determine when there is a need for the release of information during a Title IV procedure. Communicator Sarah Bartenstein has experience in message development and delivery during Title IV incidents. She has also been a diocesan communicator and currently serves as a long-time parish communicator at one of America's largest Episcopal Churches, St. Stephen's Church in Richmond, Virginia.
There is no doubt Title IV communication is crisis communication. Diocesan Communicator Craig Wirth says while crisis communication is part of public relations, it is not to be confused with public relations “spin.” He says crisis communication is to be accurate, timely, and above all, honest. Because Title IV involves facts and not just image or branding, anything that cannot be proved true or proved false can damage reputations and the process.
The spokesperson is to be knowledgeable, rather than one who “tests well” in a PR campaign. If a diocese intends to retain a public relations company, that company must fully understand the complexities and the theological foundation of Title IV and not just be well-versed in generic crisis communication theory. That kind of familiarity only comes from pre-planning and training as part of the Title IV response team.
Title IV is unique to the church and to the concept of most disciplinary processes. It is difficult to project the function, the structure, or the outcome of a theologically based process, especially if a PR firm or spokesperson doesn’t fully understand the concept. While there is a related topic on this website that deals with the media, one long-time communicator makes an excellent point that should be repeated here concerning general best practices. The point is that many journalists (and the media audience) not doubt immediately view the Title IV disciplinary process in terms of TV courtroom shows or in past high-profile court cases. The spokesperson must be aware of this frequent disconnect with the Title IV procedures that are very different from those examples. The communicator will need to be skillful in recognizing any misconception and correcting it quickly. Sarah Bartenstein has been both a diocesan parish communicator, a media professional, and served as president of Episcopal Communicators.
The public’s lack of knowledge or confusion about the difference between a secular trial and the ecclesiastically based Title IV offers an opportunity to develop meaningful messages. They become opportunities for education about the process. Discussing the process also downplays the discussion of participants which helps protect the dignity of the goals of Title IV. The Diocese of San Diego’s Hannah Wilder says education helps bring trust to the structure of Title IV.
Canon Craig Wirth agrees with Hannah Wilder about discussing the process. Wirth says another pressure that may be exerted in crisis communications, such as in Title IV, is the PR pressure to only promote or somehow write or say material meant only to boost good will for the diocese, a church, or another institution where an incident is taking place. Of course, he is not saying one should ignore good will when it is genuine.
Wirth, who has researched and taught crisis communication in universities, says studies show obvious attempts to merely deflect discord or bad news are counterproductive. A Title IV process is a time to explain what is going on in the theologically based procedure. Just as Hannah Wilder states, the more one knows about the process, usually the more one will trust it and understand it was written to protect the dignity of all.
Title IV communication is not just an attempt make the church look good.
A Diocesan Communicator may also be under pressure to hold back a public fact that might not be the type of PR that a church official wants released. There may even be pressure not to disclose that there is a Title IV procedure at all, even when it is at the public stage. Again, the transparency mandate of proper crisis communication is important. The advice is not to ignore what's going on, but to take the opportunity to explain the process to those who may be in the communication "loop." Communicator Sarah Bartenstein says this includes the media, congregations, and others.