Gene Grabowski, a leading U.S. expert on consumer-products recalls, thinks the Roman Catholic Church risks making the same crisis-management mistakes as Toyota did in dealing with faulty accelerators on several million cars.
The senior vice-president of Levick Strategic Communications Corp. in Washington says the church is in danger of forgetting what Toyota forgot - that an institution's greatest strength is axiomatically its greatest weakness.
"What made Toyota great," Mr. Grabowski said, "is that once it decided to go on a strategic path, it stayed with it no matter what. So what happens when they have a crisis and they have to respond to it quickly? They move like an 88-year-old man because they're sticking to the path.
"The church is even more extreme than Toyota. The Catholic Church takes centuries. So when they're confronted with what they face now, they're reaction is, 'Well, it served us well over the centuries. This is a private matter, we can solve it, we have our own solutions.'"
Mr. Grabowski, who was named PR Week's 2007 Crisis Manager of the Year for his work on U.S. nationwide recalls of spinach, pet food and 45 million Chinese toy imports, said sometimes the church's approach works.
But it's not likely now, he said, especially when the church has been challenged by the news media, "which is probably the church's only external stakeholder right now that can effect quick change."
He said the church has made a terrible mistake in challenging the news media, one that could sew the seeds of its demise. He made the analogy to how the media brought down former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who also challenged the media.
What the Vatican should do, he said, is announce a commission of inquiry under a prominent individual, preferably a layperson and preferably an American because Americans are inclined to have more media savvy.
"I think the mandate has to be simple enough that people can grasp it, specific enough that it is meaningful and set in a time frame that is reasonable - four or five months or maybe even six months to do this.
"And you hire a firm like ours, but tell no one that you've done it, because that becomes the story."
Mr. Grabowski said his firm has worked for the Vatican before, but he would give no details. Michael Valpy