Responding to Inquiries from the Public
Everyone who works in Catholic communications has, at one time or another, been in a situation where they have to summarize their job for a stranger. For me, it always seems to be at the snack table at social gatherings.
You can feel it coming, right between the customary hellos, figuring out how you both know the host and wondering when the next round of hot hors d’oeuvres might emerge from the oven.
“So what do you do for a living?”
“Oh you know, I work for the Catholic Church…Hey, are those shrimp puffs?”
It’s virtually impossible to briefly summarize what it’s like to work for the Church, especially when it comes to the beautifully broad and complex task of communications.
While our roles can involve any number of strange and interesting tasks, first and foremost, we are the public face of the diocese or organization we represent. How we conduct ourselves when dealing with the public can determine how people view the Church.
So whether it’s at a table next to the shrimp puffs, in an email to a journalist or on the phone with a concerned parishioner, each encounter is an opportunity to put our best face forward and fulfill our primary call to evangelization in this secondary call to serve the institution of the Church as a communicator.
Callers With or Without Collars
When we get busy, it can be easy to forget that the party on the other side of the phone or the email sender is a person. That person could be having a good or bad day. It could be a devout Catholic or an atheist. It could be someone looking to return to the Church. It could be a bishop.
Again, a good rule of thumb is to default to our primary vocation as Christians before our secondary one as communicators. This dictates that we treat all with dignity.
For example, someone calls you to share a conspiracy theory they read about online, on which that they feel your organization or diocese should take action. You can react one of two ways:
Reaction 1 (knee-jerk, judgmental): “Where did you read that load of bologna? We don’t take action on lies and foolishness.”
Reaction 2 (pastoral): “I can understand your concern; however, we need to check out the source of the information before we take action. Would you be able to send me a link to the article so I can look into it further?”
The pastoral reaction achieves a twofold outcome of acknowledging their concern is legitimate while also putting an end to the conversation before it gets too lengthy or turns into a litany of complaints. Litanies should be for saints, not complaints.
The important thing is, if someone took the time to contact you, it’s important to hear them out and acknowledge they have a real concern that was serious enough to warrant them taking the time to do so. That’s usually what they want: acknowledgment from a human being that they have a legitimate concern. Being dismissive is just going to frustrate them and ultimately can fuel skepticism toward the Church.
Answering the phone can also be an incredible opportunity for mercy. I regularly get calls from shut-ins who can no longer make it to Mass but would like clarification about something they heard on TV about the pope or the Church. It only takes a moment to share the latest news and brighten their day.
Inconsolable and Uncontrollable
Occasionally you may receive irate callers who refuse to dialogue and just want to yell. It’s never productive to stoop to that level.
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully a number of times to calmly explain an issue or respond to their concerns, eventually you may need to end the conversation, charitably but firmly. Try this phrase:
“You’re obviously upset and I would be happy to talk to you when you’ve calmed down but I won’t talk to you while you’re yelling or unwilling to dialogue. Thanks for your call.”
Dealing with irate callers tests the patience in a major way. I always try to remember that 1) I have no idea where they’re coming from and what they may have experienced to make them so upset; 2) they are probably hurting; and 3) not to take it personally. After I hang up, I say a quick prayer for the caller.
Similarly, with email, you can use discernment to determine when it is worth engaging with the sender and when it is best to simply acknowledge receipt of the message. Tip: if you are CC’d on an email, you have no obligation to reply. That is the responsibility of the primary recipient.
Once words are out of your mouth, you can’t take them back. This is especially true in the digital age, where we’ve seen a frightening number of public figures lose their jobs over a hastily sent tweet or email. We don’t have to live our lives in fear, but being prudent with our communication efforts, especially in high stress situations or when provoked, is essential.
Remember your primary call to evangelize, celebrate dignity, exercise mercy and compassion, and make it your goal to have people walk away uplifted from their contact with you.
We have the great privilege to represent the Church and its message of salvation, love, truth and joy. It’s a message that deserves nothing less than your best efforts and your most creative snack table explanation.