On the Value of Professional Catholic Communications: A Case Study
Examining Word on Fire’s press release provides a master class in “Crisis Response 101: What not to do.”
Disclaimer: Molly is a close personal friend of Chris Damian, and a strong advocate for victims of sexual violence.
In March 2018, I sat in an auditorium at the University of Notre Dame, captivated by Bishop Robert Barron. His keynote speech was a highlight of the Cultures of Formation conference, bringing together Catholic bishops alongside educators, researchers, and pastoral leaders to consider how best to bring young adults to—or back to—the church.
At the time, I was completing my master’s degree in communication at Saint Louis University. I found the presentation exciting and invigorating: Barron’s presentation relied heavily on the workings of sociologist Christian Smith, whose research on “nones” was the foundation of my thesis on Catholic young adult prayer discourse online. I met Barron after his talk, thanked him for the great work he was doing, and snapped a picture.
I had profound respect for Barron and excitement for his work. I hoped his comments on Rey as a feminine hero in Star Wars: The Last Jedi were a fluke (maybe he’s more of a Star Trek guy). So when he suggested in his Letter to a Suffering Church that Bathsheba was to blame in the middle of a treatise on King David’s sexual sins, I was flummoxed. He had written:
The biblical author is likely aware of Bathsheba’s own cooperation with the affair—does she just happen to be bathing within easy eyeshot of the king?—but he is especially interested in the king’s deft but wicked use of his power to manipulate another. (p. 31)
At the time, I wrote a letter to the Bishop asking him to consider the victim-blaming nature of these words on behalf of a feminist Catholic organization of which I was part. I don’t know whether the letter was ultimately received, but I never heard him mention it again. When he chose to feature Jordan Peterson as a great example of masculinity, despite Peterson’s problematic disposition toward women, I was disappointed but not surprised.
Then I read excerpts from a recent staff meeting where Bishop Barron spoke dismissively about women who had entrusted his organization with their stories of sexual assault and abusive sexual behavior. In a series of recent posts on this site, Chris Damian has outlined issues related to the culture at Word on Fire. I found myself yet again mourning what could have been. The concept of Word on Fire was simple and beautiful: use modern tools to usher in the New Evangelization and invite a new generation of Catholics to find excitement in their faith. Unfortunately, a culture of toxic masculinity may have overtaken that priority. Many have written—and will continue to write—more eloquently than I about this cultural phenomenon, but what struck me as particularly shocking from a professional perspective was Word on Fire’s press strategy in responding to Damian.
Damian released his first piece discussing Word on Fire’s termination of Joe Gloor on Saturday, April 30. Word on Fire published a first press release in response on their site on May 2. The press release did not mention Damian by name, or reference the reason for sharing anything about Gloor’s termination. It seems to exist solely so that the organization has something in writing to point back to if they’re asked about the termination, why it was quiet, or what their protocols are. This type of response, though unhelpful to the victims in these types of situations, is not uncommon for public-facing institutions.
A second press release, posted on May 6, flies in the face of professional communication standards and is shocking for both its caustic tone and lack of comprehension of the deeper issues at hand. Examining a few key parts of the release provides a master class in “Crisis Response 101: What not to do.”
The strategy employed by the Word on Fire team violates the most important rules of crisis communication: be quick, be clear, and be consistent. When an organization makes a mistake, or is accused of impropriety, a professional, calm message that is based in facts and shared openly serves to disseminate tensions and reassure stakeholders. If Word on Fire’s intent was to engage in good faith and bring people in, its actual approach did the opposite.
Word on Fire thus provides Catholic institutions an excellent opportunity to learn best practices related to crisis communication, and to improve on them for the future. It is important to keep in mind, however, that crisis communication for Catholic institutions is not simply about crisis “management.” For Catholic institutions, crisis communication requires a clear sense of Catholic mission, a sensitivity for those at the center of the crisis, and a commitment to using communications in service of the Church. These best practices are tools to be used in service of the good. And the better we can use them, the better service we can do. This piece is not about bashing Word on Fire or its statements. Rather, it is about a learning opportunity for the betterment of the Church more broadly.
Step 1: Be quick
Let’s start with the dissemination. It took Word on Fire six days to put out a press release that addresses Damian and his posts by name. The first release was put out three days after Damian’s post went live, which is a reasonable timeframe, especially considering the weekend. However, waiting nearly a full week while not responding to comments on social media posts—and sometimes deleting them—does not inspire confidence. Ideally, you want to put something out within 24-48 hours of an occurrence to stay on top of it.
Much like the decision to scrub Gloor’s presence from Word on Fire’s website and hope no one asks questions, these two press releases are hidden. They appear on Word on Fire’s “Press” page but are not disseminated on social media. Unlike every other press release on the page, they are both simply titled, “Statement from Word on Fire.” Again, this strategy makes sense if you’re trying to distract, bury, or lead away from this story. If Word on Fire didn’t want their social media followers who are already unfamiliar with Damian to find out about the story, then burying it on their press page is the way to go. If they wanted to engage in deep and challenging conversations, and further a culture of calling one another to be our best, they’d engage meaningfully wherever they can. Ultimately, the strategy pursued ensured that the response to Word on Fire’s followers was delayed. Because they did not have quick access to these press releases, their engagement with the present controversy likely would have started with pieces produced by others, if they discovered the controversy at all.
Step 2: Be consistent
One of the most important things you can do as a professional communicator is maintain a consistent voice across all platforms. When you write for an organization, you become that organization’s voice, and you must maintain that voice. It’s all you have.
In its marketing and educational materials, Word on Fire’s voice is inviting, engaging and open. That is not what we find in this release from the very beginning:
Beginning on April 30, 2022, a writer named Chris Damian published a series of posts on his ‘substack’ blog in which he defamed Bishop Robert Barron and attempted to smear Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Since the publication of Damian’s posts, Word on Fire staff and their families have received threats. This could have been prevented if Damian had reached out to Word on Fire for comment.
On May 2, Word on Fire released a statement which can be found here.
The press release begins with an attitude of defensiveness and anger, ignoring the need for any organization to maintain a consistent voice. The choice to place Substack in quotation marks is questionable and seems to imply that Damian’s blog should not be taken seriously because of its platform, even though the only place where Word on Fire posted the statement on social media was in response to another Substack. The use of the words “defamed” and “smear” are equally troubling, given the release’s lack of evidence to back up that claim. This is particularly notable given Damian’s stated interest in addressing a specific set of harms rather than attacking any individual’s character or forcing people to stop supporting the organization.
The structure of the proceeding two sentences seems to blame Damian for threats staff and their families have received; it is implied that getting a comment from Word on Fire would have stopped these threats. While threats to employees and family members are inexcusable, the charged introduction to this piece immediately comes off as defensive and angry. For a Catholic organization interested in sharing the good news and providing hope through faith, this is inconsistent in tone, value, and voice.
A more helpful introduction might go something like:
Word on Fire Catholic Ministries exists to draw people into the body of Christ, which is the Church, and thereby give them access to all the gifts that Jesus wants his people to enjoy. As a Catholic ministry, we value truth, openness in communication, and the dignity of all human people.
Recently, a writer named Chris Damian published a series of posts regarding the termination of a Word on Fire employee. Word on Fire was not notified or asked for comment in advance, and staff and their families have received threats since the publication of these posts. Background information on the employee’s termination can be found here. In light of the allegations raised in the posts, we’d like to clarify some information about Word on Fire’s zero-tolerance policy.
Step 3: Be clear.
The statement continues:
The primary concern regarding Bishop Barron in the Damian posts was that he mishandled charges of sexual impropriety by a Word on Fire staffer. The truth of the matter is that the process of investigating and dismissing the employee was conducted by a sub-committee of the board and not by Bishop Barron. He couldn’t have mishandled the situation since he was not handling it at all. A simple call to Word on Fire would have clarified this matter for Damian.
A few issues here. First, the press release references but never cites or links to the posts in reference. Regardless of the level of agreement or disagreement with the contents of Damian’s posts, citing sources and providing a means to access them—particularly when summarizing arguments made within them—is key.
Damian’s pieces do in fact detail the official process wherein Gloor’s investigation occurred, including the moment in which that investigation was curtailed and Gloor was fired.
Most importantly, however, the press release takes as its main tenet that this whole thing isn’t Barron’s fault. “He couldn’t have mishandled the situation, since he was not handling it at all.”
This focus on what Barron himself did or did not do ignores the question of the culture at Word on Fire, as well as the specific statements and actions referenced. It makes this debacle about Barron, and about an attack on his character, rather than about the culture of distrust and misogyny that Damian alleges to have unveiled. This angle both misunderstands the role of a leader—as a commenter on Damian’s Instagram pointed out, communicating with staff is part of “handling” a workplace investigation—and misses the opportunity for a deeper dive into corporate culture and how assault is discussed at the organization.
Inherent in reputation management is the acknowledgement of an organization’s values, its mission, and its identity. A response to a critique of any organization should draw upon the organization’s mission, consider whether the actions detailed in the critique are in line with or against that mission, and provide a path forward that aligns with that mission. Word on Fire’s response does none of these things. It misinterprets the central tenet of Damian’s articles and speaks negatively of both Damian and a former employee, blaming them for the controversy surrounding the circumstances of Gloor’s termination. In doing so, it fails to accurately or effectively refute or even respond to the claims of a culture of misogyny.
They might consider framing this section more like:
Word on Fire seeks to be a leading voice for accountability in the Church. As such, we have zero tolerance for abuse or harassment of any kind. We were surprised to hear Damian’s analysis of the employee’s termination and consequent conversations between staff members. Though the investigation and ultimate termination of the employee were undertaken by a sub-committee of the Word on Fire Board of Directors, we recognize the sensitive nature of such investigations and understand the need for leadership to handle their discussion in a comprehensive and compassionate manner. Because we were not provided the chance to comment on the matters covered in Damian’s posts before publication, we will now share more information surrounding the case in question.
[Here, Word on Fire might spend one to two paragraphs detailing the employee’s termination, the reasons behind it and their process for handling sexual misconduct investigations. They’d then want to consider what Damian’s post misconstrued, before refuting claims of a problematic culture by sharing more about their rooting in Catholic principles and how that informs everything they do. Examples might be appropriate.
Finally, a conclusion could consider what they can do better in the future, as well as detail concrete steps to continually improve their culture, before inviting Damian and others to keep Bishop Barron, Word on Fire, the victim-survivors, and the ex-employee in their prayers.]
The actual statement takes a different approach. It goes on to detail the “facts” surrounding Gloor’s termination. Over ten paragraphs detail the facts surrounding the case, but only two mention the meeting in question. Victim-survivors are mentioned twice: both times to share irrelevant details about the women.
Though I won’t detail those ten paragraphs here, it’s worth noting that the release again mentions that Barron was not involved in the termination decision (again, not the point), and also accuses Damian and the ex-employee of lying and acting with ulterior motives. Nowhere in the post does Word on Fire refute the conversations that occurred in the recorded meeting, share the organization’s stance toward victim-survivors, or detail any kind of policy to support women or survivors of sexual assault or abuse.
The tone, lack of focus, and insistence on sharing irrelevant information regarding victim-survivors and the ex-employee risk rendering this response a defensive diatribe bent on passing the buck and distracting from deeper issues at hand. A more effective and successful piece—one based in professional communication ethics and standards—would have responded to Barron’s quotes from the meeting. It would have considered organizational culture, explaining or apologizing for the attitudes shared in the meeting. A truly exemplary response would have detailed next steps for addressing the underlying concerns. Even if the organization believed nothing has been done incorrectly, it would have acknowledged Damian and the ex-employee as faithful Catholics with valid views. Or it might have assumed good intent, perhaps suggesting that Sipling had misguided good intentions, and that Damian was unfortunately misinformed.
At its best, this statement could have been what Barron’s responses to Star Wars, Bathsheba, and Jordan Peterson weren’t. It could have been a fresh start: a chance to consider why culture matters. A chance to invite women, so often silenced in the church, to the table. A chance for healing. A chance to bring in diverse, new voices, and encourage them to encounter the gospel together. I can’t help but feel that this press release was a wasted opportunity, by an organization more concerned with being right than doing good. And much like when I read Letter to a Suffering Church, Barron’s take on Peterson, and even the original Damian posts, I find myself heartbroken but not at all surprised.
But even if I find myself heartbroken, I do hope that Word on Fire’s release provides an opportunity for other Catholic organizations to learn and consider their own approaches to public communications, especially when responding to crises. Again, they should be quick, be consistent, and be clear. But most of all, they should be Catholic.
More on this controversy: