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The Media is a Gift from God?

The Financial Times 30/11/04

Making Roman inroads into the mass media
By Marialuisa Taddia

For an industry often accused of inciting gluttony, lust and the other deadly sins, John Patrick Foley has uplifting words.

The media is a "gift from God", and advertising "the most important form of communications in the world", says the Pope's communications adviser, adding: "I've often said that the church has been in advertising for 2,000 years. We call it evangelisation. We really believe in our message and we offer much more than a lifetime guarantee."

But in common with advertisers claiming somewhat less than two millennia of marketing experience, Archbishop Foley is grappling with the challenges of right here, right now. As president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications - a sort of media ministry for the Vatican - Foley sets the policy for the highest level of the Roman Catholic church, and its 980m worldwide followers.

If you want to get your camera crew into the Papal State, 69-year-old Philadelphia-born Foley is the one to sweet talk. A former newspaper editor and TV script producer, he will orchestrate the global broadcasts of John Paul II's Christmas Day mass. His remit runs from Rome's response to the latest Hollywood bible epic, multichannel TV and the internet, to ways to spice up a humble sermon.

But the truth is that, despite his globe-trotting schedule, the archbishop has a fairly mundane problem: how to reach the widest audience in an era of media proliferation and content deregulation.

As an American, Foley knows this better than most. Public service obligations on US broadcasters used to provide a platform for traditional churches via religious programming. Deregulation of the content obligations on networks has, he says, encouraged non-denominational voices on multichannel subscription outlets to be heard more loudly.

"One of the greatest challenges today is to get our message into the mainstream media... Today many [mainstream] media outlets are closed to a religious message and the result is that fundamentalists are the main presence in broadcasting," he says.

He points to the high profile televangelists such as Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcast Network, TV show host the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Paul Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network.

In the UK and other markets, he predicts that the switch to an all-digital broadcasting system, where most viewers will have access to many more channels and content rules will probably be relaxed, will hurt established churches. Light-touch regulation is already causing "the general deterioration [worldwide] of the moral quality of entertainment broadcasting", he says.

Critics would counter that the Catholic church has well-developed media channels of its own, but has been slower to embrace the marketing opportunities of technology than newer, nimbler faith groups.

"I don't think the Catholic church believes in [doing] advertising," says Chas Bayfield, a creative at Heresy, the Chime-owned ad agency, who is also a member of the ecumenical Christians in Media network. Where Catholic creative work has appeared it is often slated as too safe to engage the public.

Evangelical groups have also been more vocal lobbyists in markets such as the UK, where churches are prevented from owning national analogue TV licences (Premier Radio has an FM London licence). The TV bar does not apply to digital, and there are several religious channels on Sky Digital.

In one light, the Catholic Church would appear to have the same challenge as many global organisations - ie ensuring its practitioners live up to the promise of its brand. It also has two specific and enduring PR issues.

First, its teachings on social questions such as abortion, divorce and homosexuality remain divisive in many countries. For instance, in the recent furore over the appointment of Italian minister Rocco Buttiglione as the European Justice Commissioner, the Catholic church lined up on the "losing" side. Buttiglione, a friend of John Paul II and an acquaintance of Foley's, provoked a storm for his views on single mothers and homosexuality. He withdrew his candidature. Foley says: "I suspect he [Buttiglione] was misinterpreted by the media. But maybe he should not have phrased things in that way."

Second, the Church's handling of a string of sex abuse cases involving members of its clergy in different countries continues to be attacked.

Whatever the topic, Foley says the Catholic church needs to manage and use the media more professionally. He published a blueprint for a communications strategy called Aetatis Novae (Dawn of a New Era). Sent to every diocese in the world, it calls for education and training in communications for each pastoral worker and priest.

"We should have spokespeople who are absolutely candid, open and honest in responding to questions. In that way the credibility of the Catholic church would be established even when there's bad news. And the journalists who have asked the questions would be much more open to the presentation of good story ideas."

The other main plank of Foley's work is trying to be positive about the media. That means trips to Hollywood and the US networks. The aim? To express gratitude for "certain things they do and express concerns about other things that they do... I think affirming what is good is something that maybe the church does not do often enough."

Foley supported Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of The Christ when critics called it anti-Semitic. He also headed the commission that drew up a list of 45 "exemplary" films to commemorate the centenary of cinema in 1996. They included religiously-themed works such as Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The more wordly On the Waterfront and Citizen Kane also made the cut.

There was a "very favourable response" from the studios, he says. "They often said the church condemns things, but in this case we were affirming some of the best works they've done over 100 years. It opened more doors to us."

Likewise, despite his worries about the impact of some US shows, syndicated around the world, he is at pains to praise some network productions: ER and Law Order are "excellent" and "thought-provoking".

On advertising, he is "a fan" - with caveats. He helped draw up the Vatican's policy on advertising images of women and misleading or divisive messages in a widely-circulated Ethics in Advertising document.

"Sometimes the advertising people I meet on my travels accuse of us of being dull which, of course, is the mortal sin in advertising."

Compared with other religions, the Catholic church has been less active in using mass marketing. Foley says one reason is that it has no central budget, and adds: "Much of what the church does really can't be packaged in a 30-second commercial announcement - it requires a sort of feature story presentation."

Perhaps. But as church attendances continue to fall, particularly in the west, is the product being sold really marketable?

"We have the most important message in the world. Where do we come from? Where we are going? And how do we get there? Should we present that message better? Yes. But that depends on what is possible in different areas of the world. There are more restrictions around the world on presenting a message on the purpose of human life than [there are for] selling Coca-Cola."

In spite of Foley's concerns over content liberalisation, there have been some benefits to the Catholic church from the media explosion. Foley's division has been the catalyst for the "multiplication of Catholic media outlets in Africa and Latin America". These include low-cost FM radio stations (would-be operators can train at the Pontifical University in Rome). There are also Catholic news agencies such as the international Zenit, ACI Prensa in Latin America and UCA News in Asia.

If the radio stations and news agencies operate at arm's length from the Vatican, Radio Vaticana, the daily newspaper l'Osservatore Romano and Centro Televisivo Vaticano, which broadcasts the Pope, are the heart of the communications network.

The Vatican also deems the internet to be an increasingly important means for spreading the message to younger generations. Foley bought (for an undisclosed sum) the .va domain of the Vatican's website, www.vatican.va. "This guarantees authenticity that the material [distributed globally] originates from the Vatican."

After two decades at the head of the Pontifical Council, Foley's relish for his job appears undimmed. "I think I am involved in the most important work in the church," he says. Then, as if realising he might be committing the sin of pride, he adds: "Whether I do it well is another question and on that there are two judgments. That of man and that of God."

martaddia@yahoo.co.uk


Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2004.

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