At a communications conference in Rome this week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan offered his own observations on how to communicate effectively, emphasizing the importance of addressing hard issues.
Pope Francis “has given us a good example,” the Archbishop of New York told CNA April 29. “He's very shrewd, he’s very savvy. He’s what we need.”
“He says, 'how do we get the message out',” the cardinal stated, noting that although “he can stand at his window and talk,” he says that “I probably reach more people than the 100,000 in the square if I tweet a message.”
The Pope is “a shrewd man,” he repeated, adding: “never ever pass up a chance to speak about Jesus, to speak about the truth.”
Cardinal Dolan was in Rome for an April 29 – 30 conference on communications organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
During his speech, he highlighted seven observations he has made about effective communication from Catholic media outlets, noting that the first is to have “a real sense of professionalism; professionalism in all that we do.”
“We adhere to the best and highest standards” he said, indicating that this doesn’t only go for the latest in technological advancements, which are “critically important,” but also for “the way we use that technology,” because “how we say something is just as important as what we say.”
Cardinal Dolan then said that “if we are going to be effective in our ministry of communications, (then) we are never afraid to tell the truth, even when we are dealing with bad news.”
“What we hear over and over again is that people want and expect utter honesty and transparency from the Church,” highlighting that if a priest is removed from ministry or there are accusations of sexual misconduct “our people want to hear about it first from us,” and not the secular media.
Drawing attention to how “we’re almost never criticized for someone’s misbehavior,” the cardinal explained that “what we are criticized for, and rightly so, is if we attempt to cover it up or if we say nothing,” adding that “to be proactive in the truth is a good strategy.”
The New York archbishop also observed that “every communications outlet has a bias, a slant,” which is natural and to be expected, but that as Catholic communicators we “should also have our own bias.”
“And that slant must always be pro-Church. We do not apologize for that.”
He also noted the importance of never caricaturing or stereotyping those who oppose the Magisterium and bishops at every opportunity.
Even when confronted with those who attempt to distort what the Church says or who issue “mean, vicious, and outward attacks,” we must “always respond in charity and love,” he exhorted.
“We follow the instruction of Jesus by not responding back to with harsh words of our own,” but by responding “cleanly and civilly.”
Emphasizing the importance of being open to dialogue with those who seek to attack the Church, Cardinal Dolan drew attention to Pope Francis’ simple method of communicating, expressing that he “has communicated a beautiful message of love, of God’s goodness and mercy.”
“Pope Francis knows what he wants to say, and he knows how to say it,” the cardinal explained, stressing that “it’s not part of some grand public relations agenda, designed to improve the image of the Church; it’s just who Pope Francis is.”
“There’s no way somebody could script who he is … what you see is what you get, and the world is responding, because his whole life is dedicated to conveying the good news simply and sincerely in everything that he does.”
In his fifth point, the New York archbishop proposed that all communicators “bear in mind the need always to be catechetical in our approach.”
“We cannot underestimate people’s lack of knowledge about our Catholic faith, both within our own flock and especially those outside of the Church.”
“Anything that we can do clearly, confidently, simply, succinctly, joyfully, to explain how our faith is worth our time and effort, the simpler the better. Every diocese now needs to have trained, competent laypeople to represent them.”
Cardinal Dolan also pointed out the necessity of “always, always put(ting) Jesus first.”
“People have a hunger for meaning in their lives through the truth.” Thus, “we offer them Jesus before we do anything else.”
A final point the cardinal made is that “we have to know our audience.”
“As Church media professionals we need to know who we’re talking to, if we’re going to be effective and successful.”
“For many years those who represented us have known a lot about theology, but not much about the art of communications,” he lamented.
“We need people who know both.”
“Who not only know the faith, but can articulate it and send it out in a compelling, colorful, and inviting way.”
Personal witness was Cardinal Dolan's final point.
“We have to be happy and confident right? That’s what it’s all about.”
“If we believe everyday we receive his presence in Holy Communion, that he listens to us, that he answers our prayers, be not afraid.”