Ministry of truth and soul - Tell the truth. Many preach it in PR, but not so many practice ...

Profile - Ministry of truth and soul - Tell the truth. Many preach it in PR, but not so many practice it - at least not in the same way as Father Miles O'Brian Riley does, as Susan Arthur discovers.

Father Miles O'Brien Riley is not a man to miss an opportunity. Famous for his ambush interview questions, even the message on his answering machine asks: 'If this were the last day of your life and you had only one more phone call to make, who would you call and what would you say and why are you waiting?'

Riley, whose 30-year media ministry has made him the best-known priest in Northern California, uses his techniques for every type of client: from the Justice Training Institute, to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, the Executive Program run by the University of California at Davis Extension and Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Arizona.

He begins his media training workshops by ambushing participants with mock television news crews as they arrive at the seminar. With cameras rolling, students are barraged with questions related to their field like 'How are you making sure our drinking water is safe?' or 'When's the last time you ran into Jesus Christ?'

Riley, 61, began his communications career soon after his ordination.

When he returned to Northern California in the late 1960s as a parish priest in San Francisco, he discovered he loved working with teenagers.

It was a time when kids were not going to mass, drugs were everywhere and he - a hip, young priest in a turtleneck and long beard - wanted to reach them.

In 1968, Riley's 'God loves you' messages began beaming across the airwaves of a Bay Area rock station. Two years later, he started a communications center to teach youth to work in television and film. With the help of 26 conscientious objectors opposed to the Vietnam War, Riley began producing and hosting his own television mass and public service announcements.

Since he founded the Catholic Communications Center, Riley has produced and hosted 10 films, 1,500 television programs and 3,500 radio programs.

He has gained a global reputation for his seminars teaching church leaders how to communicate with the news media. He has also conducted thousands of communication and ethics workshops to police chiefs, district attorneys, corporate executives and to guests and staff at a luxury spa.

In 1977, his new boss, San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, instantly becoming a national figure. Because major media were calling for interviews, statements and reactions, the bishop tapped Riley to be his spokesman.

At the time, Riley also was interning in Bank of America's corporate communications department. The now deceased John Bell, who was vice president of communications, agreed to teach him how the bank handled crisis communications - 'provided I took off my collar and wore a tie,' says Riley.

Over the years, Riley has counseled the Catholic Church through many a tricky moment, including an embarrassing scandal involving a priest who gambled $250,000 he had borrowed from parish members. They handled the crisis with his 'three S plan': strategy, statement and spokesman

'You have to put together a crisis management team to develop a strategy of what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. Then you craft a singular statement and finally determine who will say it,' Riley explains.

But he adds, significantly: 'Whatever you decide, you must tell the truth. The truth sets you free.'

In the case of the gambling priest, Riley and his team said he was both a Christian with a gambling disease who needed help; and a citizen who disobeyed the law and must pay restitution.

'It took us six months to get the attorney general to arrest him,' Riley admits. 'I had to explain that the church would have no credibility if they did not arrest him. 'We'll take care of the disease, you put him in jail,' I said. We also returned 90 percent of the money to the families.'

Riley says that all good public relations is based on trust and proceeds to rattle off his 'nine P's of effective public relations:' 1. Be Prepared 2. Be Personal 3. Be Particular 4. Be Pictorial 5. Use Parables 6. Be Positive 7. Be Pastoral 8. Be Powerful 9. Be Persuasive

After serving 10 years as spokesperson, Riley took a year's sabbatical to train bishops in 47 countries on how to work with the media. After his adventure, he continued with his television ministries and began consulting with the private sector.

'I look for creative, fun ways to reach people with God's love in a non-denominational manner,' he says. The fees he earns from his consulting jobs help fund the diocese's television ministry.

'He's a very funny and talks straight from the heart,' says Patrick Parks, police chief of Santa Rosa, Calif., and a seminar student. 'He has you define your values and discuss how your actions match your values. Something that every executive, every person should think about.'

Katie Penner, director of corporate communication at Canyon Ranch, a resort and healing spa in Tucson, hired Riley to coach a dozen key staff on how to give interviews. 'We had everybody from the executive chef and women's health director to the vice president of sales and our doctor of nutrition appear on camera to learn how to make their story translate to TV in 15-second sound bites.'

When not conducting seminars or tending to the members of St. Mark's in Belmont, California, where he resides, Riley spends his time in television studios. For 28 years he has been broadcasting 'The Catholic TV Mass', which airs on 128 stations in Northern California.

He also hosts a weekly TV mass, 'For Heaven's Sake,' on KRON-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco; and a radio program, 'God Bless You', on K101.

Riley plans to take another sabbatical next year to write a book called, 'Tell the Truth with Kindness.' 'I use the media to touch peoples' hearts,' he says.

How does Riley answer the question on his answering machine? 'I would do a conference call to my six younger brothers and sisters and say, like Stevie Wonder, 'I just called to say I love you.'

Father Miles O'Brien Riley
Communications Consultant and Trainer

Archdiocese of San Francisco

Ordained in Rome

Radio ministry in San Francisco

Catholic Communications Center Archdiocese of San Francisco

Director of Communications

Office of Information Archdiocese of San Francisco

Sabbatical to conduct media training for bishops around the world

Communications and ethics workshops.

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