Just as political conventions present a grand stage for keynote speakers to strut their stuff at a podium, the recent induction of Pope Francis provided a handful of cardinals the opportunity to bask in the media spotlight and show us what kind of communication skills they have.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, has never been accused of shying away from that spotlight; in fact, he seems to positively preen once inside it. In the media capitol of the world, he is the Media Monsignor, chumming around and courting journalists with whom he's on a first-name basis. If certain members of that press corps weren't so busy eating out of his hand (and you know who you are) they might be able to do some objective reporting on him.
As a communicator, Dolan is skilled; in fact, you could even consider him gifted. He is to Boston's Cardinal O'Malley what JFK was to Nixon. But a funny thing happened the other day during a live radio interview Dolan did with the on-air team of an all-news radio station in New York City: This big, gregarious man of the cloth tripped on his own vestments, committing a number of media interview no-no's. Cardinal communications sins? That might be overstating it. But venial sins for sure.
The trouble began immediately. The news anchor introduced Dolan, who was in Rome, and welcomed him. Instead of graciously saying "good morning, glad to be with you," Dolan launched into an unsolicited thirty-second story. I'm all in favor of taking the ball and running with it, but this was a flagrant snatch and steal. In the world of media coaching, there's an art to subtly controlling the interview without creating the sense that you've overtly hijacked it. The cardinal could stand to brush up on the subtly a bit.
Surprise Number 2: Dolan kept weaving the reporter's name into his answers. Once or twice, okay, especially if it's a reporter who covers the archdiocese. But the cardinal must have done it a dozen times within a five-minute interview. "Well Rich.." "It's interesting you bring that up Rich..." "And as you well know Rich..." The last time I heard someone overdose on that technique was an insurance salesman trying to sell me an annuity. It's an outdated, obsequious device taught in salesman school, and as Dolan's performance suggests, very possibly the seminary as well.
The trinity of boo-boo's was completed when the anchor asked what the cardinal thought about the brevity of the papal installation mass, by Vatican standards a brief 90 minutes or so. Dolan went to make an analogy. Good idea, as long as you have one at the ready and have thought it through ahead of time. But on this morning, Dolan discovered the perils of spontaneity, mistakenly thinking that he could pull one out of thin air on command. He didn't. "An hour and 45 minutes, which for a papal mass, that's like a.... that's like a uh.... Uh, a real ... that's very short." As Rick Perry once famously said after swinging and missing three times, "Oops."
Am I nitpicking the poor archbishop? Sure. I have no doubt he's a swell guy and he has a celebrated public image. I can understand how his charisma can result in the media getting wrapped around his bishop's crook. But his little stumble the other day illustrates an inescapable fact: No matter how good you get at speaking publicly, you can never get complacent and mistakenly think you can "wing it." Lack of preparation is one of the surest ways to show your fallibility.