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How Opus Dei Tries To Break the Spell Of 'Da Vinci Code'

Plan Was to Ignore the Book,
But as the Movie Loomed,
A PR Offensive Bloomed
By STACY MEICHTRY and ANDREW HIGGINS
Wall Street Journal/May 19, 2006; Page A1

On a visit to New York in March 2003, Juan Manuel Mora, global communications director for the conservative Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei, was strolling down Second Avenue with his deputy. A bookstore window brimming with copies of "The Da Vinci Code" caught their eye.

The novel, which depicts Opus Dei as a sinister cabal fond of murder and masochism, had only just been released. Mr. Mora's American colleague already sensed trouble ahead, but Mr. Mora told him not to worry.

"Nightmares don't last long," he recalls saying. "You wake up the next day and forget it ever happened."

Three years later, the bad dream continues. And it got worse this week, with the world-wide release by Sony Pictures Entertainment of the movie based on Dan Brown's best seller. The novel has upset many Christians, particularly Catholics, by promoting the theory that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene. There are now 60 million copies of the book in print around the world.

Mr. Mora, Opus Dei's communications guru, is trying hard to break the spell. The Catholic group, whose name is Latin for "work of God," is mimicking the tactics of a global corporation confronted with a public-relations debacle. Mr. Mora says his team of Opus Dei PR experts has crafted a strategy to "turn lemons into lemonade." The aim: convert negative publicity into a sweet marketing opportunity to promote the group's charity work and core Christian beliefs.

The organization, which has more than 87,000 members around the world, has opened its local centers to press and public. It has published articles and booklets explaining its purpose and rebutting what it calls grotesque distortions by Dan Brown. It has redesigned its Web site (opusdei.org4), too. Visits to the site hit 3 million last year, up from 674,000 in 2002, the year before the book came out.

"We had to get totally naked to confront this problem," says Mr. Mora, a jovial 47-year-old Spaniard who teaches communications at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, which is run by Opus Dei.

His expertise has brought badly needed skills to an organization dogged from the start by a reputation for creepy secrecy. Founded in 1928 by Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá, Opus Dei has been accused of supporting dictatorships from Spain to Latin America and of brainwashing members.

Its fictional image in "The Da Vinci Code" is even darker. One of the book's main heavies is Silas, a homicidal albino monk and Opus Dei member with a weakness for self-flagellation.

One fact-based detail from the book has proved to particularly troublesome, however. That is the cilice, a barbed chain that is strapped around the thigh and used for self-mortification.

In the book, Silas sports a cilice (pronounced SILL-iss). Most ordinary members, known as supernumeraries, don't wear one in real life. But so-called numeraries, full-fledged devotees who take a vow of celibacy and live in Opus Dei centers, do. The idea is that the pain caused by the device reminds the wearer of Christ's suffering on the cross.

"The famous cilice is extremely burdensome from a public-relations standpoint," concedes Marc Carroggio, Mr. Mora's deputy in Rome.

Brian Finnerty, Mr. Mora's American colleague, says he was dismayed to see a trailer for the film showing a shot of the cilice and Silas with blood flowing down his leg. The portrayal is "grossly exaggerated," he says, as the cilice isn't designed to wound. Opus Dei isn't renouncing the cilice but is downplaying its significance, noting that fewer than 20% of its members are numeraries.

When "The Da Vinci Code" was published three years ago, Opus Dei hoped to be able to ignore it, convinced that speaking out would merely boost sales. Then, when Sony Pictures purchased the movie rights, Mr. Mora and his colleagues started to shift gears, hoping to soften the film's portrayal.

In early 2004, Thomas G. Bohlin, Opus Dei's top official in the U.S., wrote a letter to Sony asking that the group's name not be used and asking for a meeting with Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony's Motion Picture Group. Ms. Pascal declined. Opus Dei then released an open letter to the "shareholders, directors and employees of Sony" that encouraged the company to run a disclaimer at the start of the film, stating that the movie was based on a work of fiction. Sony's reply: no disclaimer.

Sony Pictures spokesman Jim Kennedy says the company is confident that audiences will understand the movie is "a fictional thriller, not a religious tract or historical documentary." Sony, he says, has been sensitive to Opus Dei's concerns. He cites a Web site set up by Sony to air debate.

Opus Dei spurned the Sony-controlled site as a marketing gimmick. Mr. Mora says several PR companies approached Opus Dei offering their services but the group declined. Opus Dei, he says, "prefers its pasta homemade."

It began thinking up ways to reach the movie's future audience with its own message. Having taught several courses on crisis management, Mr. Mora was familiar with the basic principles. He realized that Opus Dei shouldn't stay silent, a mistake that many companies make when faced with bad news -- and one that backfired on the Catholic Church during the U.S. scandal over sexual abuse of children by priests.

But textbook cases of damage control had only limited value for a religious organization, says Mr. Mora. Opus Dei didn't have a product it could pull from shelves and repackage. Opus Dei, which is made up largely of laypeople but also includes some priests, offers a strict brand of Catholicism. It calls on members to extend the spirit of Sunday worship into their everyday lives through frequent prayer and good works. It wasn't about to change that, but decided it could alter the packaging.

In April 2004, Opus Dei officials and members began granting interviews that have appeared in books, in a History Channel documentary, and a cover story in Time magazine. Opus Dei also publicized the existence of a "real Silas," Silas Agbim, a Nigerian stockbroker and Opus Dei member who lives in Brooklyn.

"If you take all of our defects -- wrinkles and all -- it's still not as bad as the hateful depiction we're given in this film," says Mr. Mora. "Nothing is as bad as Silas."

So, while some Catholic groups are boycotting the film and threatening legal action, Opus Dei is calmly promoting its work and presenting itself as a victim of Hollywood. Instead of generating buzz, it wants to be seen as banal.

"People who come here looking for something surprising or shocking are going to be very disappointed," said Jean Granier, a schoolteacher, father of 10, and Opus Dei member who this week took part in an open house at the group's center in Marseille, France. "What we do is very, very ordinary." His oldest daughter, Aude, also a member, handed out pamphlets explaining that, contrary to "The Da Vinci Code," Opus Dei "has no monks, no murders, no masochism and no misogyny."

Outside PR professionals say the outreach strategy carries risks. "I think their lemonade is going to turn sour in the end," said Simon Holberton, a partner of Brunswick Group LLP, a London public-relations firm. "They are going to get lots of applications from nutters -- survivalists and others who like inflicting pain on themselves."

As for the cilice, a dozen members at the Marseille gathering all said they had never tried it and never would.

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