By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Throughout his tenure as communications director and spokesman for the Fall River Diocese, there’s one thing that John E. Kearns Jr. has learned: be ready to roll with the changes.
Having served under four bishops now, Kearns has had to adapt from a time when press releases were largely written, printed and then sent out via the U.S. Post Office — what is often referred to now as “snail mail” — to sending items via fax machine, to today’s primary mode of communication: the Internet and email.
“Years ago you had to calculate if you put it in the mail, when would they get it? Now it’s instant,” Kearns said.
And there’s nothing more immediate than a quick Google search for an organization’s website that can provide all of the information you need at the touch of a click.
One of Kearns’ responsibilities that has become increasingly more prominent in recent years has been to maintain and update the official website for the Fall River Diocese. While the diocese has had a viable Internet presence since 2000, the website was long overdue for an upgrade.
“Our diocesan website was obviously dated, technologically and appearance-wise,” Kearns recently told The Anchor. “It was a product of its time, but this stuff changes so rapidly, you have to keep up with it. You have to change with it, because people get tired of looking at the same old things.”
To that end, Kearns approached then-Bishop George W. Coleman last year about revamping the diocesan website, www.fallriverdiocese.org.
“Bishop Coleman agreed and he encouraged me to start looking around to see what we needed to do,” Kearns said.
With Bishop Coleman’s blessing and approval, Kearns approached Litos Strategic Communication, based in New Bedford, about the project. Litos was not only conveniently located within the diocese, but was also a known entity with a good reputation, having previously assisted with projects for the Catholic Charities Appeal and Development Office.
With plans proceeding as summer approached, the appointment of Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., as the eighth bishop of the diocese was announced and Kearns said he soon found himself “bringing Bishop da Cunha up to speed” shortly after his installation on the website project.
“He certainly concurred that the diocese needed an updated website and supported the work,” he said.
Kearns said a committee consisting of himself, Bishop da Cunha, vicar general Father Gregory A. Mathias, moderator of the curia Father Michael K. McManus, Development director James A. Campbell, and director of Faith Formation Claire McManus, began meeting with representatives from Litos to come up with an overall “sitemap” for the website outlining the content it would contain and the various navigational menu items that would point to each page.
With a preliminary sitemap ready by November, the architecture of the website was built over the subsequent winter months.
“Litos handled the technological side and I worked on the creation of content,” Kearns explained. “Litos was very helpful in suggesting the right software to use, the features that were out there, and how to migrate information from the former website to the new one, so it all didn’t have to be done from scratch.”
With the committee’s final stamp of approval, the new diocesan website was officially launched and went “live” on Memorial Day.
“What we came up with is a new site that is user-friendly, the navigation is easy, it’s very functional, it’s built for multi-platform use — so people can access it from tablets and smartphones — and it’s easily expandable,” Kearns said. “Those are all things we thought we needed and all the things that define a current website.
“As I said when I met with both bishops, more and more now the website is becoming the face of the entity to the general public. If someone wants information, they go to the Internet and see if there’s a website and the diocese and its parishes are no different. So we knew we had to offer a website that was functional and easy to use.”
The website’s homepage immediately offers a sense of the new dynamic features with a series of “marquee slides” with large photographs that highlight key diocesan events and news items that would be of interest to visitors. The homepage also offers a series of smaller thumbnail photos below that link directly to sections about the parishes, schools, offices and ministries within the diocese.
One of Kearns’ favorite features on the new website is the parish database, which has supplanted the previous static listing of locations.
“I’m really happy with the parish database,” he said. “I think it will prove to be very helpful for residents here in the diocese and for the people who are spending time here in the summer — those who are looking for Mass times and locations on Cape Cod. It’s easily searchable, it provides very quick and easily updated Mass schedules, links to parish websites and emails, and a Google map feature so you can go in and put in either your address or city and town and find a parish anywhere within a 50-mile radius. And with the map function you can get instant directions. That’s something everyone assumes you can do now, but you’ve got to provide it.”
In addition to the standard press releases and photos sent out from the Communications Office, there are sections about the various religious orders working within the diocese, a section on charitable efforts and programs like the current Catholic Charities Appeal, details about Catholic Social Services, and information about the diocese’s policy and procedures governing its “safe environment” and contact links to report any potential incidents of abuse.
“Another thing I like is the calendar function,” Kearns said. “I’m hoping over time it will serve as kind of a comprehensive listing of all things happening in the diocese that would be of interest to people beyond the parish setting — things that the Faith Formation Office does or Catholic Social Services offers that have a broader appeal than the local women’s guild meeting.”
Two brand new features on the 2015 website include a section on parish resources, where Kearns said pastors and parish secretaries can easily find pertinent information, and a new section with employment opportunities available in the diocese.
“Those sections weren’t part of the old site and they are really in the early development stage,” Kearns said. “I’m hoping as our parishes and ministries become accustomed to it, they will be able to post any openings they may have so people who might have an interest in working for the Church can find out what’s available and what’s open.”
Utilizing the popular WordPress software to input and update content, the new diocesan website also offers an easy search function, “so if folks aren’t sure where they should go, they can just use the search function on the homepage and it should bring you to it,” Kearns said.
While the new website reboot contains all of the information that was available in its former incarnation, Kearns said the new version “is much more dynamic and is easier to digest and access” than before.
And there’s room for expansion, especially in terms of adding things like videos and photo slideshows.
“The ultimate goal is to help the diocese and our parishes evangelize, to reach our people,” he said. “In one case it might be as easy as providing someone with a Mass time, or for someone else it might be providing the steps that are involved in becoming a Catholic.”
When he first embarked on this venture a year ago, Kearns admitted he didn’t anticipate the amount of time he’d spend organizing information and, especially, gathering photos to enhance the look of the new site.
“It’s certainly been a learning curve for me,” he said. “I’ve been learning as I’ve been doing it and I’m trying to get better with the graphics and images.”
“It takes time and there’s a lot of information to keep track of — Mass times change, parish assignments change, phone numbers change — and I’m going to do my best to keep up with it all,” he added. “Once you start, it’s a good thing, because other things come to mind — ‘Oh, we could do this or add that’ — but we had to reach a point where we decided to launch what we had and then we can continue to build on it. I took great care to make sure the information that is up there now is accurate and I will work very hard to maintain accuracy. That’s going to be the challenge.”
Noting he is happy with and proud of the new website and the work that Litos put into it, Kearns said he’ll now have to make a concerted effort to ensure all of the content on the pages is fresh and timely.
“I think by nature websites are works in progress, so in order for it to be functional you have to keep adding to it and keep it up-to-date,” he said. “This website was created in a way that it’s easy for me to do that, and so going forward that will be done.”