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March 18, 2013

Best Public Relations and Branding Practices for the New Pope: How a New Leader Can Show the Way Out of a Crisis of Perception

By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology; President, Media & Communications Strategies

Critics are accusing the news media of covering the papal selection process and result like a political event or entertainment. Why should that kind of coverage surprise anyone? I think there is little doubt that Pope Francis is absolutely savvy and is taking advantage of this seminal PR moment. Of course he knows the media is reporting his every single public move as they would report on a new president or a mega-corporation celebrity CEO. Pope Francis' job description is very different than either but we can learn about how a new leader has an incredibly powerful moment, a tipping-point, when they first step into a new job. The new leader can seize the day, carpe diem, to influence public perception and their own organization or, in the case of the Pope, inspire the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world and the church's vast internal organization.

Let's look at Pope Francis' ascension in the context of what any new leader should do to help their brand using applicable psychological theory, especially when that brand is struggling or in crisis. Everyone knows the Catholic Church is laboring through a sensitive time of crisis of faith and credibility right now following priest sex scandals and questions by its flock about the church's political and social dogma.

Know your audience. Any leader and PR practitioner must understand what their audience needs or thinks it needs and leverage the strengths they have that satisfy those needs. Can the new Pope drastically affect the Church's brand in a positive way … absolutely, depending on what your definition is for the successful branding of today's Catholic Church.

Of course, the Catholic Church, especially in the US, is also experiencing a crisis of definition. Should the church be focused on responding to the predilections of its members? Polls show the majority of Catholics want female priests and most parishioners support the use of contraceptives and even cry for priests to be able to have families while the Vatican and its priests officially preach opposite positions from the pulpit. Early Christians grew their church as a movement of vox populi, a people's voice, and Christ's Gospel challenged apostle Saint Peter as the first pope to lead "fishers of men." Today, conservative Catholics don't believe the Church should grow at the expense of sacrificing many of its organizational edicts, like celibacy for priests, established millennia ago. If you have faith in the popular polls, that conservative position is costing the church dearly.

Can Pope Francis control the Catholic Church's brand the way a CEO can? Consider the following comparative definitions.

The papal definition according to the Catholic Ecclesiastical Canon 331: "The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power."

The corporate CEO definition according to Investopedia: "The highest ranking executive in a company whose main responsibilities include developing and implementing high-level strategies, making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors and the corporate operations. The CEO will often have a position on the board, and in some cases is even the chair."

So, let's put aside who or what chose Pope Francis (divine inspiration, the Conclave of Cardinals, a political process, a quasi-corporate process based on organizational goals) and take away additional branding and PR lessons from what Pope Francis has done and is doing, at least from what we see publically.

Choose a brand name that expresses your mission and product. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires chose to be christened again as Pope Francis, saying, he was inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi — the embodiment of an advocate for the poor.

The pontiff has already been famously quoted, ""I'd like a poor church, for the poor." He was photographed, and that photo has miraculously appeared on the Internet, as cardinal kissing the feet of poor parishioners. He is a Jesuit, a Catholic sect that takes vows of poverty.

Pope Francis will inevitably be deeply involved in church politics and business along with his spiritual leadership. He will have to have opinions and even act on various controversial doctrine and secular positions and certainly will have to deal with the pedophile priest scandal but choosing his papal name and his initial comments certainly send a very clear message that positioning for the poor can overshadow all other issues and set that symbolic brand in the public mind.

A big question is whether the Catholic leadership, from the Vatican to Cardinals to Bishops to parish priests, will publicize the reinforced mission of the church to help the poor? The church has ignored the opportunity to create a public drumbeat of its incredible good works and tried to put out its crisis fires reactively instead of proactively.First indications are that Pope Francis is leading proactively right out of the gate.

Read part two of Scott's analysis on Friday, which includes more branding and PR lessons from Pope Francis for communicators.

Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. (www.macstrategies.com), a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds worldwide. The firm's reputation managers have represented two major church denominations. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner and major market and TV network investigative journalist with a Media Psychology MA from Touro University Worldwide www.TUW.edu.

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