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​The Vatican’s arduous task of communicating in the modern age

May 31, 2015 | posted by


The Vatican's arduous task of communicating in the modern age 

What needs to change in the Vatican's communications department to make it worthy of Pope Francis? How are the problems of understaffed and overwhelmed office going to be fixed? What does excellence in communicating look like in 2015 for an institution that's 2,000 year-old?

These and other questions were recently tackled by the committee tasked with Vatican media reforms -- a hopeful project, but one that's destined for a long road ahead.

“We were always conscious that Pope Francis is an extraordinary communicator himself and it made us realize how much the rest of us have to do -- to use a sporting phrase -- to up our game,” Lord Patten, chair of the Vatican Media Committee, said in a May 27 lecture for the English and Welsh Bishops’ World Communication Day.

“We wanted to propose a communications structure that would be worthy of him,” continued the British peer, who is a former head of the BBC's governing body.

Lord Patten said the Vatican committee wanted a communications and media structure for the Holy See that would “aim at excellence.”

The committee was given a “clear mandate” to propose reforms. These proposals include a unified structure of governance and management for Vatican communications.

Lord Patten stressed that the committee sought to outline “a best possible configuration” that builds on the Vatican’s existing assets while aiming for the gains that “closer integration and cooperation could make possible.”

One of these assets, the Holy See Press Office is “understaffed and under huge pressure,” he said.

The committee envisions a major role for a strengthened press office, which Lord Patten said “should operate in more languages in a way that accommodates a 24-hour news cycle.”

The Vatican’s media entities include Vatican Radio, the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Television, the Holy See website, and the news aggregator News.va, as well as publishing operations and archival facilities. 

Among Lord Patten’s criticisms of the overall Vatican communications structure, he highlighted the “strong compartmentalization” of the various media entities and the absence of cohesive management. The fragmentation of media operations has made it “unnecessarily difficult for the Holy See to produce the type of multimedia content involving the convergence of print, voice and images that is necessary for an effective digital presence and to engage contemporary audiences.”

The main goal of the committee was to achieve savings in its annual budget, which exceeds $76 million.

However, Lord Patten explained that the committee “quickly realized that major savings would only be possible through cut backs in the staff of over 600 – an approach that we judged not to be ethically appropriate.”

The committee’s structural reform includes the establishment of a unique body for Vatican communication, to be composed of five departments: a pastoral department, an administrative department, a commercial department, a technology department and a media operations department.

The pastoral department would perform many tasks currently done by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, including relations with bishops’ conferences.

The administrative department is intended to carry forward reorganization and to integrate functions that are presently replicated in different media entities.

The commercial department would oversee the development of the Vatican’s media operation through partnerships and sponsorships, as well as the management and sale of publishing rights. This department would also have responsibility for archival materials, and the publishing, promotion and marketing of all Vatican products and contents.

These two departments would help some of the Vatican’s media operations pay for themselves, thus addressing savings.

The proposed technology department would support “the sourcing, development and maintenance of suitable technological platforms and programs” and would be responsible for internet security and data.

The media operations department would restructure the Holy See’s “core media activities,” including media relations, content production and dissemination.

The committee has proposed a department of content production that would serve as a “central content hub” that oversees the shared production of general news and media content. This would use the skills and expertise of some employees now working mainly in radio, television and print media.

A proposed editorial service would centralize the delivery of content that will be distributed through existing channels. Also planned is an integrated social media channel that will customize its content in accord with the particular needs of the media entities and their audiences.

Lord Patten also emphasized the need for continued editorial integrity among the Vatican’s media outlets.

He stressed that the proposed changes should be gradual, but always made in a way that advances the clear objective of reform.

The committee’s final report included an implementation plan whose key first steps include finding a suitable plan in the light of “foreseeable opposition and resistance.”

According to Lord Patten, the report’s presentation to the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis received a positive response. The proposals will undergo further reflection by a commission established April 30

A source involved in the Vatican communication reform process told CNA May 28 that this commission is “carrying forward its job independently.” It is also working on the committee’s document to possibly outline a new proposal. In the end, the reform of Vatican communication is a process that will take longer than planned.