Friday, March 27, 2009

Communications Commission releases highly critical report of communication power struggles within The Episcopal Church

Here's an excerpt from the report of the Standing Commission on Communications now available in the "Blue Book" for this summer's General Convention in Anaheim. It gives us a rather stunning window into the confusion and power struggles inside the governing structures of The Episcopal Church:



Communications in The Episcopal Church has been in a state of significant flux for the past three years. This situation is attributable primarily to personnel changes during the Church Center reorganization initiated by the new Presiding Bishop, but it is also due to the rapidly changing nature of way in which communication is being done within The Episcopal Church and by The Episcopal Church to the larger world. These two reasons are important in understanding the frustration felt by many serving the Standing Commission as we have attempted to fulfill our mandate.

During this Triennium, the Interim Director of Communications, Robert Williams, who was appointed to serve in this role when the previous Director, Dan England, resigned, was named the Director of Communications. Under Mr. William’s leadership the Communications portion of the Church Center staff underwent a number of reorganizations. It is unclear what was driving the reorganizations, though certainly lack of adequate funding must have required all of the staff to try to do more with fewer resources. The net result of the reorganization was that for a large portion of the triennium it was unclear to those outside the Church Center which staff person was responsible for which area.

The situation does seem to be improving. Within the last few months a national search process has been carried out with broad national participation by the primary communication constituencies of The Episcopal Church. A new director, Anne Rudig, was hired and began her work in January 2009. It is expected that the focus of her first months at the Church Center will be on preparing for this summer’s General Convention; but given the new job description for the Director position and assurances from the staff of the Presiding Bishop, there is reason to hope that some of the disruption caused by the personnel changes and reorganizations within the Communications department will cease.

This Standing Commission has been severely hampered in its work this past triennium. Though a relatively small amount of money ($15,000 intended for three meetings) was requested of Program Budget and Finance at General Convention in 2003, that money was removed from the budget and the Commission was again not funded. We did what work we could do by way of e-mail and telephone.

We had significant problems getting access to information such as budgets for Episcopal Church communications, program expenses or information technology costs. A relatively simple request to explain the ongoing costs of the Red Dot web content management system and what it would cost to upgrade to the latest version has still not been answered.

It is unclear to this Standing Commission what is the actual amount of money being spent on Communications by The Episcopal Church and where the money that is being spent is coming from. While the Standing Commission is not charged with financial oversight, attempting to think about the strategic direction of communications within The Episcopal Church is hampered if the financial information is unknown. Part of the limited access to information was attributable to the fact that Director of Communications was serving as liaison to the Standing Commission during a time of transition. This, coupled with the lack of meetings that would have created natural deadlines, seems to have been the primary roadblock. Perhaps the new Director of Communications and the next Standing Commission would be better served if someone other than the Director were to serve as liaison in the coming triennium.


The Episcopal Church can expect to have to find working answers to a number of issues regarding how it does its internal and external communications in the coming years. The most pressing one at the moment is how to make a transition from paper-based means of communication to a balance of paper and electronic communications.

While there are significant cost savings that can be realized by transitioning using electronic and online communications, the reality of the audience whom The Episcopal Church serves is that using electronic means only is not feasible and would not be effective. While much of the internal communications can appropriately be handled electronically, reaching Episcopalians in economic distress or for whom computers are not available requires that we continue use paper and print. The issue for The Episcopal Church is to find the most cost effective balance. It is likely that doing this will require a broad reaching readership survey, which will in turn require spending money to do well. Other challenges that are facing The Episcopal Church are similar in that it will require finding an optimal balance between the needs of those being served and the money that is available to be spent.

Additionally there is a significant question of what the primary focus of the communications work of The Episcopal Church Center should be. There are a number of voices who call for a commitment to journalistic principles and the need for accurate internal reporting on what is taking place within The Episcopal Church.

Other voices argue that such reporting is better done by people outside the Church Center and that The Episcopal Church needs to expend greater efforts in the areas of marketing and public relations. Many believe that both are necessary and properly done by the Church Center staff, but there is disagreement as to the relative

Members of the Standing Commission have heard from a number of people around The Episcopal Church that there was little coordination with other groups doing communication work during the past triennium. For example, an Ad campaign was announced and funded without the knowledge of those in diocesan ministry who might have been able to make use of it. Given that funding is limited, any effective communication campaign will have to rely on a coordinated release across all the media markets that we are intending to serve.

While there was a strategic vision created during the present triennium by the Director of Communications (Robert Williams), there does not exist a strategic plan to address the challenges listed above. It is hoped that the new Director of Communications working with the Standing Commission and other stake-holders will create one.


One of the most disturbing developments in The Episcopal Church during the last few years has been the number of diocesan communicators who have been laid off or had their positions eliminated because of financial pressures. A partial reason for these decisions across the church has been a general sense that there was unrealized cost savings to be had by moving from print media to electronic media.

The more distressing reason is a sometimes unspoken belief that the relatively low bar to using electronic communications tools leads to a belief that anyone can do an adequate job overseeing communications at all levels of the church. It is this second reason that seems to be causing dioceses especially to layoff or downsize their communication positions in an attempt to cut costs in the face of rising budget pressures.

It is the sense of the Commission and of the larger communications community in The Episcopal Church that such actions are misguided. Effective communication in multiple media requires both training and experience, and often the skills that allow a person to function well in one media do not lead to a similar ability in a different media. Journalism, online communications, video, literature and public relations are all important tools for The Episcopal Church as it works to live into its call to share the Good News of Christ in the places where it ministers. Using different media forms well and in their proper contexts and appropriately to different audiences requires ongoing training and some significant experience. In a time of financial stress, cutting oneself off from the skills needed to effectively communicate the challenges facing the institutions of the church seems particularly shortsighted.

-From the Report to General Convention 2009 of the Standing Commission on Communications

Read it all here, including the resolution to call for a Chief Information Officer (we can see the turf battles all ready). It's interesting that the commission wants to use a resolution to call for a new 815 staff person. Obviously they are looking to General Convention to bend 815's will or someone who is holding the purse strings very tightly. It is clear that this commission is frustrated with the apparatus running the offices at 815.

The Communications department has had a complete turnover with the staff who had journalistic backgrounds being replaced with those with marketing and public relations-types backgrounds instead (which is really what you need when one moves away from working with membership base to foster community, and instead turns to rebuilding a damaged public image). There also seems to be conflict between the management of electronic forms of communications (never mind the use of social networks, which are not even mentioned in this report) as the overwhelming numbers of the Episcopal membership base - which continues to depend on print forms of communication - continues to age. Again, deciding on those priorities means asking who is the target audience?

There is definitely a sea of change coming out of 815, where communications has become far more sophisticated and rapid in responses than anything we've seen over the past three years. The 815 communications office pledges a complete revamping of their efforts at General Convention to a vastly different operation than what we saw in 2006). The dioceses would do well to heed the changes at General Convention, lest they be left in the cold. In fact, if 815 operates as though this is a hierarchical church, then diocesan communication budgets are pointless. But for one thing - one major thing.

Where the dioceses could do well and where the Episcopal Church as a whole is still in such disarray (and besides, the publication of that data could be a public relations disaster - not even the dioceses want to do that) is that TEC does not even seem to grasp who their membership really is or even where they are. The Pension Fund records are restricted (and should stay that way, take note). Those who actually have that information carry the gold.

But use that gold wisely. How the dioceses (and even parishes for that matter) share that information - not just internally - but with one other (and not go through 815) may make a significant difference in the balance of power. In communications it's not so much what we do, but how we do it.


Jill C. said...

I love the graphics you chose to go along with the story, BB. Good communication tools! ;)

Chazaq said...

I miss Jan Nunley. They should never have let her go. You could always rely on good ol' Jan for some real nutty communications and none of the problems noted above would ever have come to light. Now, they gotta get somebody with a really warped brain in there to start communicating Episcopalianism the right way.