I had the privilege yesterday of addressing about 35 Catholic seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.
The topic: How to “interact” with the media.
I was on a panel with John Woods, editor of Catholic New York, and Beth Griffin, a writer for Catholic News Service. They’re both real pros whose work I respect.
As you might expect, I argued in favor of “openness” with the media. I tried to make the case that it’s in everyone’s best interest for priests to take calls from reporters, arrange interviews and try to explain their beliefs and actions (in a clear, concise and careful way). The opposite approach — not returning calls, offering a “no comment,” turning your back on a reporter — never makes reporters go away and ultimately contributes to less accurate and meaningful news reports.
Does interaction with the media ensure accurate and thorough news reports? Of course not.
The panel was asked about reporters with an “agenda,” the questionable accuracy of bloggers, the messy fall-out from the high-pressure, 24-hour news cycle and other factors that can make the media quite scary for clergy.
All good points. No question about it. But the Media Machine is not going away and many priests will have to face it at some point.
Beth, John and I all had the same message: Be truthful. Be helpful. Be clear. Be careful.
Our presentation actually came at the end of a two-day seminar called “The Priest in the Public Eye.” The idea was to help future priests fully realize that they will live much of their lives in the public eye and to understand what it really means.
They started on Monday morning with a presentation on — get this — social etiquette. How should you look, introduce yourself, greet others, even offer handshakes. How to interact with staff and parishioners. What it means to be a good host and a good guest. Even how to offer a toast and work a receiving line.
This is the life of a priest, right?
Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of the seminary, covered basic communication, from the parish bulletin and the parish website to answering invitations and writing thank-you notes.
Father Stephen Norton covered the advantages — and potential dangers — of Internet networking and email use. For example: Choose an appropriate email name, even for personal accounts.
Yesterday morning — and I wish I could have seen this — the seminarians learned about dinner etiquette. We’re talking how to deal with forks and spoons, how to make appropriate conversation (avoid politics and religion, anyone?) and knowing when it’s time to leave. Also: Silence the cell phone.
Then came our program about dealing with the media.
Griffin had one of my favorite bits of advice for the day: Don’t refer to your archbishop as an “ordinary” or an unknowing reporter may report that you referred to Archbishop Dolan as, well, an ordinary joe.