Getting the Word Out

Interview on Challenges, Hopes for Catholic Communications

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By Jesús Colina

ROME, OCT. 27, 2009 ( Few have a better sense of the communications challenges facing the Church than Daniela Frank, the director of consulting group for Catholic communicators around the world.

Frank oversees the Germany-based Catholic Media Council (CAMECO), which offers consultation services to Catholic communications professionals in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific.

ZENIT caught up with Frank during her stay in Rome as she participated in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. She told us her perspective of the situation of Catholic communications and offered an outlook on the future.
ZENIT: You analyze hundreds of Catholic communications projects. Can you point out the «original sin» of Catholic media, from the professional and technical point of view? Why is there not today on the world scene, in television for example, a great Catholic medium, given a potential audience of 1 billion people?
Frank: It is very difficult to have an answer that covers the great diversity of the realities of the Catholic media in contexts as varied as Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. I think one problem is that many of those in charge underestimate the dynamism, complexity and professionalism of the world of communications in which the Catholic media also must move and compete. It is no longer enough to simply «be Catholic» to attract — and keep — the public.

Even those audiences that are interested in the positions of the Church, that want to watch and listen to religious programs or the messages that stem from the social doctrine of the Church and that share our vision of the human being, look for attractive and interesting programs, which are able to compete with the professional products of many commercial agencies.

The good will of a priest or of the laity committed to managing and supporting a magazine, a radio or a Catholic television channel is not enough. To communicate is a professional task and that is why we must increase our capabilities to be able to offer what is ours in an attractive way.
Another «danger» in Catholic communications — in our opinion — is that we think more of «means» than of «communication.» Often, what is important is to establish and to have one’s own means — a printed service, a radio station, a television channel — and only later, consideration is given to programs, financing operations, training personnel.

Instead, one could reflect first on the recipients with whom one wishes to communicate and the contents that might attract them and then determine the most appropriate channels and formats. To think more «strategically» continues to be a great challenge for us, Catholic communicators.
ZENIT: An important problem for Catholic media is self-financing. Religious information is not the same as economics, sports or entertainment. In the latter case it is easier to elicit payment for use or enjoyment. Is there a solution to this problem?
Frank: The financing of Catholic communications is an urgent subject worldwide. For electronic means, advertising is almost the only way to generate significant income, an option that ecclesial superiors often reject or that — in several countries — the law does not allow. Another option is individual donations or — for the media in the South or in parts of Eastern Europe — specific subsidies by agencies of cooperation. There are also dioceses that dedicate part of their budget to radio or other diocesan means because they have an essential pastoral role.
Undoubtedly, to support a Catholic medium is an enormous challenge and it is a challenge to grow in «shared responsibility,» a responsibility that includes the local hierarchy, the faithful and others who identify with this medium.

There are no easy solutions and there are no solutions that work in every context. But we can see that initiatives with creative productions, well-defined recipient groups and solid social bases address this challenge more easily.

We must be more creative, we must grow in commitment — which is only possible if we are convinced that our medium really offers an important and professional service — and we must free ourselves of the prejudices against the commercial world. We can learn much from the successful commercial media without simply copying their operations.
ZENIT: In developing countries there are many Catholic initiatives of communication and few means. Can these realities take advantage of your professional services of advice and help? How?
Frank: To advise the local Churches of Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe is, in fact, CAMECO’s raison d’etre. It was founded 40 years ago to support the agencies of cooperation of Western Europe and North America in their decision-making on requests for communication initiatives. And the margin of projects includes almost all the diversity of communications from puppet theaters to Internet and satellite television platforms. Meanwhile, we advise about 500 projects a year and more than 40% directly send us those in charge of projects who seek our support in the strategic planning of their initiatives, in consultations on the organizational development or the training of personnel or to coordinate advice and evaluations on site. Many contacts are made especially by electronic mail or Skype, but we also visit projects or — in the case of need of a wider and more detailed consultation — we find outside experts who can facilitate corresponding workshops and support processes of change.
Each person in charge of a communication initiative who wishes to consult us can contact CAMECO directly, for example, by electronic mail. For more details, we invite them to consult our Web page.

ZENIT: We live in the era of the information and communication society, but many think that the Church continues in the Gutenberg age. From your experience, how is it possible to make bishops, priests, religious and laity see the seriousness of the situation?
Frank: There is a great openness to changes in the world of communications. I believe that as Church, we entered already some years ago into the world of audiovisual communication — radio, video, television. In Latin America, already since the 50s and 60s, in many countries the Church has been one of the most active institutions in radio; by comparison, in Africa only for the past 10 or 15 years have there been legal possibilities to establish radios sponsored by the Church.

It is very clear that, in the great majority of areas of the world, we must be present with the audiovisual means to communicate with the people because of illiteracy, the problems of transport of printed newspapers, oral traditions, etc. And the Church has responded energetically to this situation, without neglecting the role of the written media in several cultures for certain groups of recipients.

The great challenges of today are the new interactive media, especially the Internet, and the prospect of interconnecting several channels such as radio, TV and Internet platforms. We must keep in mind that those who are responsible for the Church’s communications are not «digital natives,» but perhaps «native migrants,» discovering step by step the dynamics of the new technologies. There is always a certain risk that above all we are «against» the new, the unknown, but there is also a growing number of bishops who move easily in this world and in this way open the doors of the Church to take advantage of all the channels of communication to fulfill our mission in today’s world.

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