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Pope Francis, Need Some Public-Relations Help? Here's Advice from America’s Political Consultants

Jorge Mario Bergoglio can take cues from the world of politics.

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Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The pope is a religious leader, a diplomat, and the chief executive of a massive, worldwide operation. And as Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio takes over an organization dealing with more than its fair share of scandal, mismanagement, and outreach problems.

It sounds like the pope could use a political consultant.

 

Despite the notable differences between the pope and a politician (infallibility, lifetime appointment, etc.), the new pontiff could take a few cues from the world of politics on how to shore up his base, reach out to new constituents, and develop an effective communications strategy. Below, some top political and communications strategists dish out advice on how the church should position itself for the future.

Focus on messaging and administration

The church is averse to change. But it can change the way its message is distributed and rework its internal structure to heal previous wounds and handle unforeseen ones.

As with any large organization in disarray, promises of reform and transparency from a strong leader can do wonders to shore up support and confidence.  

 

“Given the issues facing the Vatican and the next pope, presenting a reformist agenda will be a critical part of generating goodwill with Catholics around the world as well as those Vatican-watchers,” former Mitt Romney adviser Kevin Madden says.

Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee says the pope needs to address the church’s main problems—the sex-abuse scandals and the perception that it’s behind-the-times—“immediately and convincingly” to shore up confidence. “It's not that different from politics here—you've got connect with people, convince them that you 'get them' and that you're willing and able to fix institutional problems,” he says.

The church’s stances on divisive issues such as gay marriage can be tough for some young Catholics, and given that there isn’t much leeway on its positions, Democratic strategist Maura Dougherty said, “The delivery of the message becomes incredibly important. They need to find a way to talk about things that people can agree on.”

Take advantage of your larger-than-life personality

Think of the crowds a pope draws when he travels, and the pageantry and gridlock that follows. He is a rock star, equipped with an iconic bullet- and bomb-proof Popemobile. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world. And there’s nothing more uniting than the force of a charismatic personality. The new pope should realize his most important function is to be a pastor-in-chief, someone who can both embolden and soothe the people, said Miguel Díaz, President Obama’s former ambassador to the Vatican.

 

“We need a human face, right? Someone with that kind of compassion, solidarity with others,” Díaz said.

It’s not unlike the visibility required of a political candidate on the campaign trail, said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. “The political analogy is the town-hall meeting,” he says. “It’s important for any leader, elected or appointed to be front and center with his people.”

The new pope will also need to exude optimism. “You look into presidential races, the optimist tends to win; the person who has the positive outlook on America is the one who tends to win more than not,” said mass communications professor and media analyst John Carroll. “The same dynamic could be true in terms of a new pope.”

Use social media wisely, but know its limitations

Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter to great fanfare and excitement, and he developed a following of more than a million people almost instantly. But if the new pope wants to continue embracing technology, he should think about more effective ways of communicating online.

Carroll said that although going online was a symbolic step for Benedict, the social-media payoff wasn’t that high; he was sending out “pretty bland material,” while receiving “really outrageous stuff” from other users. “That’s the downside of social media:, You open up the floodgates to communication that could be damaging for the church,” Carroll said. “As many a marketer has found out, you really don’t want to be at the mercy of the social-media mob.”

So what’s the pope to do? Well, Twitter and other social-media outlets weren’t intended as one-way communication channels. If the new pope actually reached out and conversed with Twitter followers, that could draw international attention.

“The thing about social media is doing what the church is doing as well—establish communities. From that standpoint, it’s a logical extension of what the church does in everyday life,” Carroll adds. “The problem is that it is not controllable and not as predictable as it is in real life.”

There are other benefits to engaging online. Madden said embracing digital communications tools is “a step in the direction of transparency, which ... many critics point out is something the Vatican has struggled with.”

But just like the political world, solving a technology gap won’t solve all your organization’s problems—that’s something that even GOP social-media experts have admitted to. So while the church’s embrace of Twitter and other outlets may be necessary, particularly to reach younger members, it’s just a small step. The web is just a medium, not a message.

“The problems with engaging younger people are bigger than the ones you can solve by getting a Twitter handle,” said Dougherty. “I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing; it’s a good thing -- but, at a bare minimum, it’s not enough.”

Revamp the PR strategy

The church has had serious public-relations woes over the past decades. A flood of sex-abuse scandals began in the '80s. More than 3,000 civil cases have been brought against the church in the United States alone, amounting to a reported $3 billion in settlements. One recent Pew survey showed 34 percent of American Catholics ranked the sexual-abuse scandals as the church’s most important problem.

But the church also engages in a lot of good works that have gotten overwhelmed from the bad publicity, strategists say. Indeed, the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world.

“For decades, the church hasn’t gotten credit for the good stuff it does. They’re lousy at doing their own PR,” Dougherty says. “But it was also overshadowed by the sex-abuse scandals, which was appropriate. You can’t skirt around something like that. All the good PR in the world won’t help you --and shouldn’t help you -- with that.”

Going forward, the new pope could act more aggressively to control the media narrative. Wilson suggests that in some places, the church should “play a little hardball.”

“Too many times, too many American stories, particularly, are seen through the frame of ‘the only thing going on in the Catholic Church are these scandals,’ and that’s just not the case,” Wilson says. “And pushing back on that, and pushing back on the caricatures of the church would benefit the papacy.”

Dougherty suggested the church should, through a PR firm, promote positive stories of the good work it does around the world.

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