Surviving the Pressue Cooker
by Patrick M. O'Brien
The role is a pressure cooker. Bishops and diocesan leaders expect a lot from their communicators. From mastering crisis communications to mastering the revolution and evolution of the media landscape, today’s director of communications has to know it all and do it all. Oh, and do it in Spanish, too. How has the role evolved and what should diocesan leaders expect?
I’m privileged to work with many dioceses. I get to hear what bishops and diocesan leaders are looking for, and I’m honored to know many diocesan directors of communications. I see how different people thrive in the role as well as struggle. For a decade, I myself was responsible for communications in my own diocese. As FAITH Catholic grew to serve dozens of dioceses, I was fortunate to learn from a wide range of bishops and communications professionals, hear their needs and observe how different dioceses structure the position. It varies greatly. So does success.
Excellent communicators can fail in a diocese where leaders do not understand or value the role. Conversely, the expectations that bishops and diocesan stakeholders have for the role have properly evolved to meet the needs of today. You sometimes hear the joke about how diocesan communications has changed. It goes something like this. A generation ago, you had a dozen people work at one diocesan newspaper. Now, a one-person office is responsible for a dozen forms of diocesan media. Communicators who don’t step up can really struggle. And leaders who don’t value the role struggle to get their message out. In our service to dioceses, we have been asked to help vet candidates, train them and support them. We have been asked to help create a structure that works better to advance the mission. It’s exciting and rewarding to see incredible success from communicators when they combine their
competence and faith to help bishops advance the mission and bring people to Christ.
6 signs of success
Diocesan communications directors succeed when ...
- they are valued and trusted advisors to their bishops.
- they earn trust by being both masters in current communications practices as well as deeply in tune with the needs of the Church.
- there is a healthy workplace culture and refined process for communications.
- the primary purpose of diocesan communications is to advance the mission.
- they develop strategic communications plans.
- diocesan communications is integrated so that what is executed demonstrates value.
6 signs of struggle
Diocesan communications directors struggle when ...
- the bishop does not value the role or trust the director.
- they lack competency, are complacent or do not understand the Church.
- there is an unhealthy culture where the process is chaotic and reactive.
- stakeholders do not believe that diocesan communications is ministry.
- content strategy and planning is lacking to advance the goals of the diocese.
- diocesan media are in silos, not valued as effective.
Diocesan communications directors succeed when these six characteristics are present:
First, successful communications directors are valued by their bishops and are among their closest advisors. As soon as issues arise, they are in the room. They know the mind of their bishop and don’t just advise about communications, but are at the table during the actual decision-making process. This can lead to proactive communications that can head off or mitigate a crisis. A trusted communicator can help the bishop understand how to get his message out and how various constituencies can best be served. That dynamic happens only when there is trust between communicators and diocesan leaders.
When communicators are not trusted or are relegated to middle management, there can be a disconnect. When communicators haven’t been given critical background information, they have to play catch-up and can’t give their best advice or do their best work. That disconnect can lead to even more mistrust. Signs of this breakdown include critical information being kept confidential from the communications director, which can prevent a proactive solution from being considered, thus keeping the diocese in a reactive mode. Another sign is when a bishop entrusts someone from his inner circle who is not trained in communications to craft messages for the communicator to use. Again, this puts the communicator at a disadvantage, especially with reporters. If a reporter senses that diocesan leaders don’t trust their own communicator, it feeds the perception that the Church is not transparent and has something to hide.
If you are a diocesan leader and do not trust or value your communications director, consider reaching out to leaders whom you trust from another diocese where there is a strong communications leader. This may help you better understand the role and how to improve your diocese’s situation. You can also bring in a consultant.
It is a two-way street. For bishops and leaders to trust and value the role of director of communications, the communicator must earn it. Communicators do that in two equally important ways. First, they have to be professional communications practitioners. Second, they have to be masters of the nuances of their diocese and the Church. Possessing both qualities is a tall order. Those who do are extremely trusted and valued by their diocesan leaders. Signs of this are when master communicators consider themselves disciples of Christ. They have a curiosity and drive for understanding the changing media landscape in order to execute successful communications strategies for the diocese. They have passion to motivate their communications team. They are mission-focused. They combine their craft and love of the Lord to advance the Church’s message. They are more than communicators. They are evangelists. But—they didn’t get there overnight. They were made, not born. Each successful communicator had to start somewhere and learn how to grow into the role and provide value for the Church.
Here are some examples of communications directors:
The Secular Pro
When a communications director comes from a secular media role or communications position, the diocese is typically looking to improve the sophistication of its communications operation by bringing in a pro. Often, leaders who seek the secular pro want change. The challenge for the secular pro can be learning the nuances and complexity of the Church.
What the average Catholic in the pew knows about the Church is not sufficient for a diocesan director of communications. There is a learning curve that both the communicator and leaders need to take into account. For example, the secular pro may not know what an extern priest is or what role canon law plays. Coming from a corporate environment, they may become frustrated by the parochial realities and pastoral pace. The principle of subsidiarity is diametrically opposed to the top-down corporate approach. Secular pros succeed when they don’t pretend to know it all. They respect the role of clergy and reach out to learn their needs. Secular pros need to pick their battles. They lose the trust of diocesan leaders when they become frustrated, try to do too much too quickly or become disillusioned. They lose the trust of their staff if they are too corporate, take staff members’ experience for granted, and don’t learn the complexities of Catholicism.
The systems, processes, infrastructure, budget, staffing and scope are very different in the Church. As they listen and learn about the Church they are now serving, secular pros can master the nuances, scope of ministries and constituency needs. When they then apply what works from their experience in secular communications to the Catholic setting, the secular pro succeeds.
The Untrained Disciple
Another dynamic is that some dioceses have a philosophy of hiring a disciple and then training that person for the position. In this instance, the disciple will bring a love and commitment to the mission and, hopefully, a passion for Christ that is visible and compelling. Unlike most secular pros, the disciple will know a lot about the Church. They will understand the nuances, ministries, constituencies and dynamics. They will have the initial trust and enthusiastic support of leaders and stakeholders.
Often the untrained disciple is hired by diocesan leaders who are looking for communications to be more closely tied to mission or to have an individual in the role whom they trust. However, the challenge for the untrained disciple is down the road. If they are not experienced in the critical aspects of this very sophisticated job, they can lose that support and trust rapidly. The expectations of a current diocesan director of communications include mastery of, or at least a level of experience with, all of the following: communications strategies, crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, marketing, and digital and traditional media production, including writing, editing and video production. They may or not be trained managers or have experience leading a communications team.
Dioceses are not known for having the internal capability to train an untrained disciple in all these critical communications areas. The disciple will then need to find consultants, courses and conferences to learn these critical skills and disciplines. If the untrained disciple is managing a communications staff, trust can either build or erode. It is built when the strengths of the team are celebrated and maximized. Team success erodes if the untrained disciple doesn’t add value and doesn’t value the team he or she is leading. At the end of the day, the untrained disciple loses trust and support throughout the diocese if they don’t become professionals in the craft of communications. When the untrained disciple becomes a master communicator as well as a disciple, they succeed.
Finally, the third dynamic is perhaps the most pervasive reason for an erosion of trust and support among leaders for a director of communications. We call this the caretaker communicator. This dynamic is often associated with diocesan communicators who have had long careers in dioceses. They often are committed Catholics, know the diocese very well and have a very good understanding of the nuances of the Church. They likely served previous bishops and diocesan leaders. Being a master of the status quo is a sign of the caretaker communicator. They are overprotective of their staffs, budgets, publications and processes. They can be defensive when asked to change and cynical toward new leaders and new ideas. They possess a silo mentality. Because of their narrow outlook, the content they produce might not be valued by other ministries or the leaders.
Most caretaker communicators are wonderful, faithful people who are well-meaning but have not kept up with the revolution of social and digital media and evolution in traditional media. Bishops and diocesan leaders, who are conflict-averse and are not themselves professional communicators, sometimes do not know what to do. Perhaps they manage this by working around the person or accept results they deem to be mediocre. But when a crisis arises, the tension rises. This dynamic does not serve anyone well.
Directors of communications succeed when they stay at the top of their game with best practices in media. They attend conferences, tap consultants and consult with colleagues. They empower their staff to do the same. They reward and empower staff who are strong in areas where they are weak. They have a curiosity for what works in both the secular and Church worlds. They are strategic and present their bishops and diocesan leaders with plans and ideas about how to improve. They measure results and adapt to changing needs and priorities. Caretaker communicators succeed when they care most about how to grow and develop in their ability to serve their bishop and the mission of the Church.
As noted earlier, for communicators to succeed they need to establish trust with their bishops and be skilled in order to be perceived as providing value. However, if the workplace culture in the chancery is damaged, the most skilled director of communications will struggle. Gallup Corporation has surveyed 25 million employees in 70 countries to better understand workplace culture. The Catholic-based Spitzer Center has another tool to measure workplace culture. The Lencioni model is another example. Workplace culture is like milk. If you keep putting fresh milk in a jug on the hood of a car in the hot sun, the good milk spoils. It’s the environment. The same is true with a workplace culture. Even the most skilled director of communications cannot succeed in an unhealthy diocesan chancery culture.
Healthy cultures mean employees have what they need to succeed in their work. They have the tools to do the work and know what is expected for success. Leaders care about employee development and growth. Engaged employees get to do what they do best and are rewarded for innovation, initiative and ideas. Communications directors need all that. When it is not present, when the culture in a chancery is damaged, communicators are not able to do their best. No one is.
Specifically in moments of crisis, strong culture and processes matter. Directors of communications need an internal diocesan process that is refined, not ad hoc. Does the diocese have crisis communications protocols? Does it follow the processes prescribed in them? From the moment there is an incident, who is brought in to weigh in? Who consults on a decision? Who initiates a communications response and who drafts the response? How is that response evaluated and approved? If the diocesan culture is in silos, if there is a lack of trust, if there are turf wars, this causes chaos. If the process is ad hoc, changing from crisis to crisis, that fosters confusion and frustration. Signs of this are when the communicator is left out of the loop, when there are too many stakeholders slowing down the process, when there is inaction, when the communicator can’t get a decision. When chaos reigns, other priorities suffer and proactive, strategic, mission-oriented communications is hard to execute.
Healthy cultures have defined processes and roles. They have a defined process for decision-making among a small trusted group from the first instance of an incident to decision to approved communications. Directors of communications in those environments are trusted to initiate communications and craft them. Decisions are well made and made quickly. There is trust among diocesan stakeholders in the decision-making process.
Tied to trust, competency and culture is purpose. What is the purpose of a diocesan communications office and diocesan media? The most successful directors of communications have aligned diocesan communications to the mission and goals of the diocese. They are at the center of the most important initiatives and efforts of their bishops and diocesan ministries. The best of the best understand that the purpose of diocesan media is the same as the purpose of the Church itself—to proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and is the way to eternal happiness with God the Father in heaven.
With all that is expected, it is easy for directors of communications to forget that job number one is the mission. Signs that diocesan media have lost their purpose are when they are viewed as a business or their communications department is viewed as an administrative function instead of a ministry.
When the purpose is confused, communications directors and their efforts are not valued. When diocesan publications are viewed as businesses that should support themselves by selling subscriptions and advertising, the communicators shift their efforts toward survival vs. advancing the reach and effectiveness of Christ’s message. Diocesan leaders should ask themselves: What is the purpose of diocesan communications and thus the role of their diocese’s director of communications? Is the purpose to run a self-sustaining communications business or is the purpose to evangelize? If the verbal answer from diocesan leaders is “both,” then the real answer lies with funding. Dioceses that don’t invest in communications don’t reach very many people with their message. Financial success in diocesan media rarely leads to reaching that many people. Dioceses that are serious about evangelization fund diocesan communications accordingly. The bottom line is that communications directors need diocesan funding to succeed in their ministry to advance the mission.
Trust, competency, culture and purpose are foundations. These elements need to be in place for success. But successful diocesan directors of communications must have communications plans—a strategy for the daunting task of communicating to the many audiences in a diocese. What are those audiences? There are internal and external audiences. Demographic audiences including people young and old, English and Spanish speakers, male and female. Audiences based on adherence from the core, who are the most committed and engaged Catholics, to parishioners who attend as frequently as daily to weekly to rarely. Finally, dioceses need to reach Catholics who have left the Church, and the public at-large, with the message of Christ.
How to reach these groups is the next need for planning. CARA says that only 2% of Catholics follow anything Catholic on Twitter. Only 4% follow anything Catholic on Facebook. Only 4% go to a diocesan website. Only 5% listen to Catholic radio and only 7% of Catholics watch Catholic television. The Nonprofit Marketing Association reports that email from religious institutions has an average open rate of only 18%. It is possible for a diocese to reach 100% of Catholic households by sending a diocesan publication to every Catholic home. However, what about non-Catholics or those not registered? How does the Church reach them? How are parishes supported in their communications? The scope is immense. The communications budget and staff time often do not match the need.
That is why successful diocesan communications directors develop strategic communications plans. Like corporate marketing plans,
diocesan plans help prioritize the need, identify target groups and create content strategies to leverage small budgets and limited staff resources to achieve a desired result.
Plans include more than overall diocesan communications strategies. They include broadcast and digital evangelization outreach efforts, diocesan school marketing plans, vocations marketing plans, issue advocacy plans, parish training in communications strategies and tactics, digital media plans, content strategies for publications, search advertising and social media plans.
Finally, once you have trust, competency, culture, purpose and a plan, directors of communications need to execute. To do that, the most successful dioceses integrate diocesan media under one leader so that their purpose and execution can be best aligned toward common goals.
What does it mean to have diocesan media aligned and integrated? First, it means that all diocesan media and the staff associated with those media fall under the director of communications. That means the diocesan publication, website, social media, e-news, apps, branding and marketing all are the responsibility of the communications director. Then, diocesan media needs to be integrated with the mission and purpose of the diocese, not in silos doing their own thing. The best diocesan directors of communications have a strategy so that diocesan ministry needs are met internally by diocesan communications and diocesan media. As a result, diocesan ministries feed diocesan media with content ideas to make it relevant and vibrant. At FAITH Catholic, we assist dioceses with developing integrated diocesan media processes and integrated diocesan media plans. Other consultants help dioceses do similar things.
Signs of nonintegrated diocesan media are websites run by the technology department, social media being the responsibility of the youth minister, the vocations office has an outsider do its marketing, and the publication editor is independent. In looking at the design, content, branding and professionalism of each media asset operated by nonintegrated diocesan staff, it is hard to be consistent. This can result in all communications looking and feeling different, as if these messages were not from a single entity.
A communications director is at a disadvantage when media assets are not under one leader, one plan, one purpose. You would never see a corporate website, publication and social media effort not have an integrated execution of the message across all platforms. Yet many dioceses are structured to be in silos, putting the effort at a disadvantage. This causes a lack of trust among stakeholders. The resources are not maximized and the communications execution is not valued.
Out of 197 dioceses in the U.S., there are 156 diocesan directors of communications. That means 21% of dioceses have no communications leader. Many have one leader doing it all. The size of the staffs vary as much as the size of dioceses. Integration occurs more often in small dioceses. A director of communications can serve as the editor of the publication as well as the spokesperson for the bishop. The same person can maintain the website and social media presence and support diocesan ministries in their communications needs. In 45 dioceses, the communications director and publication editor are the same person. Integration, and much of the success outlined above, can be accomplished with one dedicated person or a small staff. If small dioceses can make integration work, there is no reason that larger dioceses with larger staffs can’t do it as well.
The bottom line
- The bottom line is the role of director of communications is needed now more than ever. Bishops are best served when they trust their communicators.
- Communicators earn the trust of leaders when they master their craft as disciples of Christ.
- The culture of the diocese needs to ensure there is an environment for success.
- The purpose of diocesan media needs to be understood as advancing the mission of the Church itself.
- Planning is the best way to leverage staff and budgets toward the Church,s purpose.
- When diocesan media are integrated and aligned, they are best positioned to execute and succeed.
The Church faces a lot: the clergy abuse crisis, the increase of those who have no religion, a culture hostile to our beliefs, the decline in the number of clergy, the decline in the reception of sacraments, the lack of formation in Catholic homes, and the overall need to evangelize a world in need of Jesus Christ. Never before have so many means to communicate been at the disposal of every diocese. Our mission and message is too important for us not to reach every soul with the truth that Christ is the source of our happiness in this life and the next. Now more than ever, the Church needs every diocese to get communications right.
Now more than ever, the Church needs every diocese to get communications right.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- Number of dioceses in the U.S: 197
- Number of dioceses with a communications director : 156
- Number of dioceses where the communications director is also editor of the diocesan publication: 50