Church in NZ missing out on communications opportunities

catholic media

The revolution in communications media presents a wonderful opportunity that the Church has been slow to grasp.

Until the 1990s, access to the general population through the media was controlled by the gatekeepers of newspapers, radio and television. Now this barrier has been bypassed by the new media — Internet-based, available to everyone, faster and cheaper than anything we had before.

Ironically, the Church, whose reason for existence involves communicating, doesn’t seem to understand communications very well (at least in New Zealand). Even the annual World Communications Day messages seem to be pretty well ignored.

There is little point in complaining about what the media communicate about the Church when the Church itself is often inept at communicating its own message. This applies to both internal communications (to the Church membership) and external communications (to society as a whole).

As for the Church’s relationship with the media, the only policy that works in the long run is one of constructive engagement. In a world in which most people get their information from the mass media, it simply isn’t an option to stand aside.

This applies especially now to social media. Engaging in social media requires courage, because these media are uncontrollable and not the place for those stuck in an old-media mindset.

But, as a writer in the United States National Catholic Register pointed out a couple of years ago, “The problem right now is that the Church is largely not part of the conversation — because it chooses not to be. So whatever control it could have, it foregoes.”

To quote Angela Salt, director of communications for Britain’s Millennium Commission, “If the Church isn’t in the media more — in soaps, dramas and documentaries — then, for many people, it doesn’t exist. If it’s not in your personal experience and not in the TV you watch, on the radio you listen to, or the papers you read, it’s as though it’s not there. That’s why the Church should seek to be in the media — to remind people that it exists and that God is a good option for them.”

Having an appealing and credible Christian character on Shortland Street — or a talented and credible Christian band on the pub circuit — might achieve more than an expensive advertising campaign aimed at young Kiwis.

In the field of communication — in this age of multi-media opportunities — the Church in New Zealand seems to have deliberately chosen retrenchment (as indicated by the vacuum left following the dismantling of Catholic Communications).

Perhaps this policy is based on financial considerations. Apart from the efforts of Caritas and the Nathaniel Centre, and the occasional bishops’ statements, it is difficult to think of any sector of the institutional Catholic Church that currently brings Catholic teaching and practice into the public square.

As a result, our society misses out on much of the great contribution the Church could make to discussion and debate; and many of the positive contributions our parishes, dioceses and religious orders make to the community are unreported.

What should the Church be doing?

The need for a professional and well-organised communications operation is obvious. Some of the other Christian churches understand this so much better than we do.

I am not suggesting reinventing the old model of Catholic Communications, and certainly not a sort of fire-fighting operation focused mainly on reacting to external events and other people’s agendas. What is needed, I believe, is more of a communications ministry that is proactive and has a long-term vision, incorporating evangelisation.

Ideally, it should operate both internally — helping Catholics to better understand what the Church teaches and how its teachings apply to the everyday lives of Kiwi Catholics — and externally — enhancing the knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the Christian message among the general population (it is the message that is important, not the “Church” in the institutional sense).

Such a communications ministry need not have a high public profile; in fact much of its mission could be achieved beneath the public radar.

Websites, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, media relations (including training for Church spokespeople) and collaboration with organisations such as the Catholic Enquiry Centre are just a few of the activities that could be undertaken.

Such a communications operation could succeed only if it were directed by people with hands-on experience in communications — e.g., journalism, information technology, broadcasting, public relations, advertising — who had sufficient freedom to act professionally. I believe it would be possible to find a nucleus of Catholics from these fields who have a vision for evangelisation and are also social media-savvy.

Of course, there are many Catholics — and I would include myself — who should never appear in front of a TV camera as a spokesperson for the Church, at least not without appropriate training. An inexperienced or untrained person can do a lot of harm to the public perception of the Church.

A realistic view

The idea of such a communications ministry being set up and managed under the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference might be too great a stretch. If established on a diocesan basis, its effectiveness would necessarily be restricted.

However I wonder whether a proposal for such a ministry, with a precisely-drafted statement of purpose and a realistic business plan, might obtain private funding and a contractual relationship with the bishops’ conference.

Assuming that evangelisation is considered to be a priority — as the Great Commission (Matthew: 28:19) indicates it should be — we should expect the Church in New Zealand to devote more personnel and much greater resources to this purpose than at present.

— Pat McCarthy was founding editor of NZ Catholic and now directs the pilgrimage website

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