A Case Study in Church Communications

A Case Study in Church Communications

Side entrance to St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco
Side entrance to St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco (Neal Patel/Flickr. CC-BY-NC-2.0)

The opportunity arises occasionally to do a kind-of case study in church communications, to look at how a story has developed in the media, for example, and how the church (or Church) should have responded. We have just such an opportunity in San Francisco right now.[1]

The media in San Francisco began reporting this week that the archdiocese’s cathedral had installed a sprinkler system in certain exterior doors and alcoves that was designed to pour water on anyone underneath at a regular interval through the night to deter them from using it as a place to sleep. Homeless people trying to sleep in those areas were reportedly being drenched, along with all their belongings, and the clear media narrative became–as usual–the old story that the Church is full of hypocrites who claim to love the poor, while abusing them.[2] In response, the archdiocese has simultaneously defended the objective behind sprinkler system while also dismantling it.

The key lesson here is that when it comes to communications the Church always seems to fight a rearguard action. Rather than be proactive about measures that are sure to be controversial, we often seem oblivious to how they will look to others or hope that no one will notice, only to have to defend ourselves later after those opposed to us have defined the situation in their terms. By failing to frame the media narrative first, we lose the battle before it ever begins.

St Mary's Cathedral
St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco (Sylvain Collet/Flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Here’s what could have happened (again, given the caveat I give in the footnotes): The archdiocese has explained that the idea behind the system was twofold. First, to protect the people who must pass by those entrances or use them at night from the sometimes aggressive people who lurk in them (who are not all homeless people) and to prevent the accumulation of feces, syringes and other dangerous substances that end up there. Second, to encourage the homeless sleeping there to move to safer, better lit areas of the cathedral grounds and to take advantage of the services the archdiocese offers to the homeless. They also said that the cathedral couldn’t afford to hire security guards to watch over the grounds all night and this system seemed less aggressive than guards.

So why didn’t they tell that story two years ago when the sprinklers went in? When the idea for the sprinklers first came up, someone should have considered how it would look to the general public and then how to frame the narrative within the archdiocese’s good intentions. Call in a reporter before the system goes in, take them on a tour, and show them the bad situation. Let them interview people who are affected, both the homeless and those who use the area. Then after the system is installed, take them on another tour, show them the now safer and cleaner grounds, bring them to happy homeless people getting the help they need, and happy people who can use the cathedral and its surroundings at night in safety now.

Would that deflect all criticism? Of course not. But it would frame the narrative and even advance the Church’s mission by exposing the good charitable work of the Church to a wider audience.

Of course, it should be noted here that perhaps the first step should have been to consider whether this was a good idea at all, whether this solution was compatible with the Gospel. San Francisco is well known for the numbers of homeless and for the use of said homeless by a political class hostile to the Church to burnish their liberal credentials. Perhaps something that was a little less aggressive and more hands-on woud have helped, something like Pope Francis’ recent move to open bathrooms for Rome’s homeless outside St. Peter’s Square, to bury a recently deceased and saintly homeless man in a Vatican cemetery, and to send out the papal almoner into the streets of the city to care for the poor personally and on behalf of the Pope. More dioceses and even parishes could take a page from the Pope’s handbook because, at least in this area, the Pope is winning hearts and minds through the media.

  1. One key caveat up front: I don’t have special knowledge of the situation, nor do I know all the details of what happened. It’s easy to sit back and criticize from afar when you’re not the one making the decisions or when you don’t have all the facts at hand, especially the ones that aren’t public. My intent is to look at this as a generic example of similar situations in Church communications. In broad terms, we see this same scenario repeated over and over.  ↩
  2. It’s important to note that in the background of this story is a fight between Archbishop Salvator Cordileone and Catholic school teachers in his diocese over a change in wording in their contracts that require them to abide by Catholic moral teaching in their public and personal lives. The archbishop’s stand has pulled in the city’s infamously liberal politicians and various advocacy groups, including a famously mud-slinging PR expert, in efforts to stop him, including proposals to pass laws that would undermine the Church’s authority. It cannot be a coincidence that this came out now. That the sprinklers were installed two years ago, but only came to light now is too convenient.  ↩