PR and public engagement can look easy when you inherit a mantle of power and prestige. But it isn’t, as seen in the dismal lack of trust we have in many of today’s institutions. For a lesson in both PR and public leadership, look no further than Pope Francis.
He’s been called “the best PR Pope the Catholic Church has ever seen.” At 23 million Twitter followers, he claims only a third of Barack Obama’s following (and, regrettably, 10 million fewer followers than Kim Kardashian) but has the distinction of being the most retweeted leader in the world, according to the Washington Post.
Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. has put the spotlight on his seemingly effortless talent for communications. In a short time, @pontifex has helped shape a humbler, more accessible, and more service-oriented image for the Church, whose reputation has suffered from scandal and the pace and pressures of our secular Western culture.
In PR circles much of the credit goes to his new communications consultant Greg Burke, a former Fox News journalist, who has made changes in the Holy See’s press operation. And Burke’s touch is evident in the more modern and accessible press office.
But the Pope’s talent for communications goes beyond the superficial definition of PR. It’s about a blend of leadership, engagement, and PR strategy, and there are some important lessons for professionals.
Show, don’t just tell. Our political and business leaders have mastered the art of speaking a lot while saying very little. They avoid tough questions by “bridging” to robotic message points and are quick to offer a hollow apology when things go bad. But behavior speaks louder than even the most polished tweet or speech, and this pope has an intuitive appreciation for the power of symbols. Much of Francis’ reputation is built on true stories about his experience in South America. More significantly, Francis uses symbolic rejection of traditional papal luxuries to signal his solidarity with regular people. Instead of a limousine, he rides in a Fiat, and rather than don the traditional red leather shoes, he walks in plain black ones.
Speak plainly. When Francis does speak (or write), he uses plain language. To sound the alarm about our role in climate change, the Vatican’s statement was larded with bureaucratic terms. (“Unsustainable consumption coupled with a record human population and the uses of inappropriate technologies are causally linked with the destruction of the world’s sustainability and resilience.”) But @pontifex’s tweet was more direct. Plain speaking is powerful.
Be inclusive. PR professionals see clients that fall into the trap of addressing only their own customers, employees, and even competitors. Similarly, previous pontiffs have been preaching to the choir – literally – in reaching out to devout Catholics. This Pope includes non-Catholics and lapsed churchgoers in his communications. Although it’s embarrassing to admit, as a Protestant married to a Jew, I’ve never before paid attention to any pope. They simply weren’t relevant. With Pope Francis, I’m engaged and impressed.
Of course, Pope Francis has drawn attention because of his progressive views and willingness to move beyond the status quo. But as a communicator, he sets an example that our political, business, and even PR industry leadership should take notice of and adapt to our own PR challenges.