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Cardinal Defends Bishops' Decision on PR Campaign

April 14, 1990|From Religious News Service

NEW YORK — Cardinal John O'Connor has staunchly defended the U.S. bishops' decision to launch a sophisticated advertising and public relations campaign to win more people over to their anti-abortion message.

Responding to the criticism that Jesus would not have hired a public relations firm to spread his message, the cardinal noted that "Christ never established a child-care institution or an orphanage."

In a press briefing early this week at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the cardinal said the bishops' strategy is necessary to offset overwhelming media support for abortion rights. A top-notch, national communications, public information effort is the "best means available" for the "church to get its message out against that . . . tremendous opposing force," he said.

"We believe the most critical issue in the United States is the problem of abortion, and if we believe that, we should try to use the best means to communicate," O'Connor said.

Archbishop John May of St. Louis supported O'Connor's Madison Avenue strategy, which he said the outspoken head of the New York archdiocese initially proposed to the nation's bishops.

May, the former head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told an audience at the Lutheran-related Concordia Seminary in St. Louis that "Cardinal O'Connor likes to do things the New York way."

The archbishop acknowledged that the adoption of the public relations strategy is an admission that the U.S. bishops have failed to persuade their members of the grave moral evil of abortion.

Chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, O'Connor announced that the nation's bishops planned to spend up to $5 million to hire a New York PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, and the same political polling and strategy firm used by former President Ronald Reagan, the Wirthlin Group, to make their case to the American public.

This would reportedly be the first time the bishops have used professional opinion-shaping firms to advocate one of their public policy positions. O'Connor said the church was encouraged by the Second Vatican Council "to use lay people, to use professional expertise" in evangelizing its message.

Reports that the bishops had signed with the two firms came as a "total surprise" to him, Cardinal O'Connor told reporters. He stressed that contracts have not been signed and no final cost figure has been established.

"We don't have the money yet, and consequently I would think it very foolish to sign any contract," O'Connor said. But he admitted that the two firms were the top contenders for the job and complained that many firms did not want to deal with the controversial issue.

"If we do contract with Hill & Knowlton and the Wirthlin Group, one reason will be that they seemed happy to do it," the cardinal said.

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