Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Memory Lane

Reflections on TEC & Its “Communications”

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I have occasionally ranted about the supposed news and communications functions of the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t always like that. In fact, it’s only been in the last couple of years.

There was a time when I was a hearty supporter of the Communications office. But that was before Anne Rudig was hired to manage that division. That was before the Board of Governors expressed its severe displeasure about our Communications office. That was before our church fired most of its best journalists and forced most of the others out.

Recently, I have been forced to ponder why the heck I am so angry at TEC’s “Communications” office. Of course, I ponder in verbosity. So this is long. Read it if you are not prone to narcolepsy. If you read the whole thing, I would appreciate your telling me what you think of the Episcopal Church’s “communications” strategy. Do you think it’s as bankrupt and ineffectual as I do? Tell me … one way or the other.

From 2003 to 2006, the Episcopal Church scarcely said a peep. We let others talk about us. We didn’t say what we were about. Our journalists must have been under a gag order. I remember e-mailing TEC in 2004, asking them where the heck I could get news. Sadly … and honestly … that Church Center staff member sent me to a news site far from 815 2nd Avenue. And that person was right: Other sites were carrying more news than my own Church was.

After the gavel came down at the end of GC06, many of us were dismayed about B033 and the fact that the Episcopal Church had let the dissidents (inside and beyond the US) frame the story. I wasn't "inside" of church politics, but it seemed that Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold just wasn't willing to let the Episcopal Church tell its story.

Tom Woodward, Bill Coats, David Fly, and several others met during GC06 and talked about the need to tell our story. That led to the creation of the Episcopal Majority website ... at a time when our official communications staff seemed to be gagged. In the absence of good journalism from Church Center, we folks determined to tell the story of the the Episcopal Church and to counter the lies being told by the schismatics. We posted essays that articulated the orthodox and mainstream views of Episcopalians. We took on the right-wing-nuts who were charging our church with heresy. Deacons, priests, and bishops (and a couple of primates) asked me to post their essays. As did GC deputies. And many laypeople. I received many e-mails from people who were grateful that someone was finally speaking up for the Episcopal Church ... and many of those "someones" were leaders of our church speaking intelligently and persuasively. We frequently had over 1,000 hits per day on that site.

Then ... in the early days of Katharine Jefferts Schori's tenure as Presiding Bishop ... it seemed that there was a resurrection for the communications function of our church. Our professional journalists began to do some very good reporting. Not merely "sweetness-and-roses" public relations or press releases, but giving the lie to those who lied about us. I would say they were doing a great thing I think of as "advocacy journalism" -- not the pablum of PR, and not just flat "reporting," but journalism that tried to tell the truth and not just the facts. Jan Nunley's EpiScope was a thing of beauty and a breath of fresh air! (I observe that website now is virtually dead, as it hasn’t posted a thing since November 2009; when Jan was in charge, we got daily news.) Back in those early days of the new Presiding Bishop, KJS did webcasts, receiving questions from all over our church and the world. She seemed to be opening our church to the world. She was communicating to us. She was willing to take on the lies from the schismatics. It seemed to me that the Episcopal Church was finally telling its story!

In May 2008, the Episcopal Majority folks decided TEC's communications were finally in good shape. We thought we had a Presiding Bishop who knew how to use communications effectively and honestly. We thought we could leave that kind of advocacy in the capable hands of the professionals at the Church Center in Manhattan. We shut down our site, in the belief that the journalists at the Church Center had things well in hand.

But then something happened. ENS lost its spunk, and the "communications" staff mostly quit doing journalism. I believe you will find that miserable change happened about the time that Anne Rudig became Communications Director. Nowadays, the "communications staff" at TEC seldom provides analysis of the news; they mostly issue pablum marked as "press releases." Our Presiding Bishop retreated [or so it seems to me] to an ivory tower in which she only appears at heavily scripted, mostly local events. It seems to me that she must have "handlers" who want to keep her at a distance from bog-standard Episcopalians.

There are now days when I wish we could resurrect the Episcopal Majority site ... but – thank God! – Bishop Chane let Jim Naughton and his brave band create The Episcopal Café. When I want the real news about how TEC is doing – or even what it is doing – it never occurs to me to go to ENS. I go to the Café’s "The Lead," where I will find news and analysis – the likes of which ENS virtually never offers nowadays.

All this reminds me of the dialogue between Jesus and Herod. "What is truth?" Obviously, I think the “news” from groups like the AAC, ACNA, IRD, etc. are just propaganda. And I maintain that mere reporting of facts is not "truth." Facts offered in context and with analysis stand a better chance of conveying truth than does "mere journalism" or "blatant propaganda." I would like to see our church's communications team provide that kind of truth. They did it for a few brief, shining moments ... but now Anne Rudig has managed to get rid of most of the journalists who were providing that kind of real journalism. I would like to see ENS provide news with analysis, fact-checking, and advocacy. But I don't see that coming out of 815, with the Communications staff mostly gutted. So I thank God that Jim Naughton and his team do our journalism for us.

So what are we to do? Frankly, it seems to me that the “Communications” staff at the Episcopal Church Center has been decimated. The few who remain are either (a) not up to the job or (b) not being allowed to do the job. I think many of them are good journalists who might want to write in the way I am urging. So what then? Perhaps it is because they have been muzzled from the top. I do not know, but I strongly suspect massive incompetence at the top of that division.

If I were the Queen of the Universe, I might abolish the whole "communications" staff at 815 [starting with its director!] and award a contract to Jim Naughton, and let his Episcopal Café team take over the communication function of the Episcopal Church. They seem to have more passion for and commitment to our church than do the "communication leaders" at 815. They have done more to explain and defend the Episcopal Church than our official “communicators” have in the last couple of years. Maybe Jim would hire the Real Journalists from 815 to work on his team. But that's just a fantasy. We are stuck with a Communications Director who isn't committed to communications. I grieve the good journalists who are no longer employed by our Church, and I give thanks to the few journalists who still try to ply their craft in the employment of our Church Center.

What say you? Do you think you are getting useful information from the Episcopal Church? Where do you go for timely and reliable information about the Episcopal Church?


OpenID wncmama said...

I thought at first this might be a tedious rant, but according to my own observations you have it right. I have no insider knowledge about who at 815 is doing what, well or badly, but I have noticed a dearth of hard news out of ENS for some time now. It's mostly raw press releases and roses. EpiScope is (milk)toast. This is going to hamper our growth and mission in the very near future, if it hasn't already done so.

I miss The Episcopal Majority; I remember the bad old days when TEC was being pegged out over hot coals daily by the reasserters and you couldn't find any TEC reporting about it. TEM and a few (diligent)blogs filled the gap and helped the church think through the crisis. 815 has a crisis all its own going on now, as their approach to media coverage shows. It would be all to the good if they did as you suggest and let Jim Naughton and crew take over media relations.
Cheryl A. Mack

2/10/2010 10:18 AM  
Blogger mojnun said...

Early on in my years at 815, I encountered a maxim that became my watchword every time I came across some decision or action by upper management that defied logic: "Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you are getting." Apply that rubric to the present case: If you want to communicate, you hire communicators (and keep them). If you don't want to communicate...

2/10/2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, Cheryl -- both for confirming my perception about TEC's communications and for your kind remarks about the old Episcopal Majority site.

I don't know what we can do to kick TEC back into professional journalism. In these past several blog-posts, I've been strugging with that question.

2/10/2010 9:32 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Jan ... I'm sad to say your maxim has proven itself in the current "communications" staff from 815. I know we have some good journalists there. But when the top slot is a void, what are we to do? And when will someone notice?

2/10/2010 9:34 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

BTW, Jan: I desperately miss your voice at Episcope and in TEC's communications. The idiots who let you get away are ... well ... idiots!

2/10/2010 9:35 PM  

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