OPINION: How Archbishop was left without a prayer

Whatever the conceivable theological or legal merits of the Archbishop of Canterbury's foray into the minefield of Sharia law, as an exercise in communication it was a disaster.

The kindest possible media interpretation was that the Church of England's press officers, and maybe even the Archbishop himself, had accidentally over-indulged in the communion wine.

Advance copies of the speech advocating an erosion of the principle of one law for all were casually emailed out to Anglican bishops accompanied by the stunningly understated header: 'This may be of some media interest.'

Indeed, in much the same way as a helpful PRO might have warned that the fall of the Berlin Wall could lead to a rush for media accreditation for positions around the Brandenburg Gate.

Or that media interest could follow the candidature of a black man in the US presidential race. As it happened, Rowan Williams' advocacy of a measure of Islamic law turned into a tsunami of headlines and comment that threatened the very future of his tenure.

Dr Williams himself suggested that his remarks, delivered to a learned forum of lawyers, have been "misinterpreted" by the media. The hasty and ill-conceived exercise in damage limitation has been almost as painful to watch as the naivety of the original communication to a wider audience.

The press reaction was entirely predictable - and blaming an over-excitable media for rabid headlines simply will not do. Print and broadcast attitudes generally mirrored the thoughts of the vast majority of people in modern, multicultural Britain.

Ironically, in an age when spin doctors are frequently lambasted for promoting style over substance in political debate, this unholy mess indicates the need for expert communicators at the very apex of every decision-making organisation.

A comms team would surely have had a key input into both content and dissemination of the speech. It would certainly have advised against prefacing the evening speech with a lunchtime BBC Radio 4 interview giving the media an easy soundbite that a move towards Sharia law was inevitable.

Savvy media handlers would have insisted that such a controversial argument be prefaced by briefings of key media opinion-formers to retain a degree of control. Third-party advocates would have been strategically placed across the airwaves and the blogspace.

Instead, a shambles of condemnation was allowed to dominate the media, massively damaging the standing of the Anglican Church at home and abroad. The lack of a comms strategy left the Archbishop without a prayer.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

 

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