The communication challenges facing Pope Francis

Cardinal Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the new pope. He will need to be a strong communicator in the modern age.


The College of Cardinals selected Cardinal Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the next pope. He took the name Francis.

It is a historic choice, as the 76-year-old Pope Francis becomes the first Latin American pontiff—nearly 40 percent of Roman Catholics are Hispanic—as well as the first pope to come from the Jesuit order.

“It’s stunning but good news,” said Susan Tellem, a partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc, and lifelong Catholic. “He’s a Jesuit, which I am happy to hear. They tend to be very tough but more forward thinking.”

Thousands of jubilant Catholics converged on a soggy St. Peter’s Square to see the new pope emerge. In the social media world, mentions related to the cardinals’ selection took over the trending topics list, among them, “Habemus Papam,” which is Latin for “We have a pope.” The phrase adorned the Vatican website, marking the first time the church made the announcement of its pope selection online.

The identity of the new pontiff was not revealed until he walked onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, surrounded by the cardinals who elected him.

In brief remarks, Pope Francis thanked the crowd in Vatican City and prayed. The crowd offered a roaring response, as the media mostly celebrated the choice.

Challenges the new pontiff will face

Pope Francis will oversee a church struggling to communicate with the faithful in the modern age. As part of what the church calls “new evangelization,” the Vatican—led by the pope—must find new ways to connect with Catholics and would-be Catholics.

“The pope has to be a 21st century leader,” said Tellem. “He’s got to communicate to the 1.2 billion Catholics.”

Tellem is no ordinary PR commentator. She served on the media advance team for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles and did PR for the world’s largest collection of Vatican art and historical objects.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the new pontiff, Pope Francis takes charge of an organization in crisis. The church is still reeling from child sexual abuse scandals, as well as fallout from recent papal leaks, the role of women in the church, and its position on hot-button political topics.

According to Tellem, it’s symptomatic of the church’s millennia-old resistance to change.

“The Vatican is still pretty much the way it was 2,000 years ago,” she said. “The main thing the Vatican has to do is to lift itself out of the 2,000 years of little change and show that it’s opening its doors to listen to other people.”

To embrace change, the church must overhaul its communication efforts.

For instance, Cardinal Donald William Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, told The Wall Street Journal that the church needs a fresh way of presenting its message.

“Communications are going to be a big part of that,” said Cardinal Wuerl said. “We have moved into this world of rapid communications. That’s all part of the new evangelization.”

As the Vatican’s communication evolves, here are the top challenges Pope Francis will need to confront:

Show that he wants to communicate.

This may seem obvious, but Tellem insisted people need to see that the new pontiff is willing to communicate.

The church needs “a pope who shows his humanity and shows that he wants to communicate,” she said. “Whether he listens and changes is not really as relevant as the positioning that he’s listening.”

According to church sources interviewed by The New York Times, the new pontiff must be “a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing.”

So first thing’s first: The pope needs to seem like a strong communicator and listener.

Get hands on with social media.

Pope Emeritus Benedict made headlines as the first pontiff to oversee the Vatican’s foray into social media. The Vatican released a picture of Benedict sending his first tweet on an iPad.

In subsequent tweets, however, it was clear to followers and observers that Benedict had little contact with the accounts.

If the new pontiff is to embrace social media, he needs to show the world that he’s actually reading and writing tweets, and so on. No one expects him to be glued to his smartphone or tablet, but he should take some interest in the new technology. He should be, as the media has said, an “e-pope.”

Pope Francis maintained an active Twitter account and Facebook page as archbishop of Buenos Aires. A Twitter account under Cardinal Bergoglio’s name is a fake, and it’s amassed more than a hundred thousand followers.

Perhaps the Vatican could steal—sorry, borrow—a page from the White House: The pope’s initials could accompany any tweets he composes, as is the case with the 140-character messages President Obama writes.

Take the message beyond social media.

Despite the attention social media gets, Tellem said what’s most important is for the new pope to get out there and travel. In other words, embrace face-to-face communications.

“Twitter and Facebook will help,” she said, “but traveling and getting out there and meeting the people is really the top job.”

Overall, the pontiff needs to be “out there,” as Tellem put it.

“Do radio, do TV, do Twitter and Facebook, do everything you can to get your message out,” she explained.

Find language that connects with people.

The pope is in many ways like a modern CEO, according to Forbes columnist Carmine Gallo, who writes about leadership and communications.

“Today’s leaders must help people understand the core mission and vision of the organization and to deliver that message in a way that people can understand it, believe in it, relate to it, and implement it,” he wrote.

That means finding the appropriate language to reach the faithful, something with which the church has struggled of late, according to Archbishop Philip Wilson, of Australia. It’s a formidable task, though. The church needs to find the right language without watering down its message. And that also means avoiding verbal gaffes.

Pope Benedict stumbled into a handful of minor PR crises during his tenure. For instance, in 2006 he cited inflammatory passages about the Prophet Muhammad. Three years later, he sparked criticism after talking of rehabilitating a bishop who denied the Holocaust, The Huffington Post reported.

To that end, the Vatican hired Fox News reporter Greg Burke last year to serve as communications advisor. In the role, he’s held mock press conferences and convened weekly strategy meetings, according to HuffPost.

Decentralize communications.

The church needs to have a dialogue about the tough topics, such as women’s leadership roles, birth control, gay marriage, and so on, according to Tellem.

Otherwise, the Vatican risks becoming even more irrelevant to modern society.

“A lot of people believe the Vatican is irrelevant today,” Tellem said. “It’s beautiful to visit, but the cardinals are extremely conservative.”

To have these tough conversations, the new pontiff needs to decentralize communications. Instead of all messages raining down from the top, Tellem said it should be local and in a way that’s better tailored to the lives of modern-day practitioners.

“For today’s world, [communications] has to happen on more of a bishop level or parish level because that’s where the people are,” she explained.

Pope Francis has not shied away from tough conversations. He broke from his peers at the Vatican on certain issues when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. He even criticized some of his peers as hypocrites.

After 2,000 years of to-down communication, change will likely be difficult. But by all accounts, it seems the Vatican picked the right man for the job.

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