And the new pope’s PR machine is off and running. This past Sunday was Pope Francis’s first Easter, and his first opportunity to show the world how he is going to change the image of the papacy. So how did he do?
The headlines were impressive. There was Pope Francis with 12 inmates at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome for an Easter ceremony. Kneeling before the group, including women and Muslims, he bathed and kissed their feet. The news reverberated around the world with Pope Francis saying, “The one who is highest up must be at the service of others.”
Other news: He has declined to wear the golden cross reserved for popes and has said no to the traditional red papal shoes. He continues to live in modest accommodations instead of the regal papal apartments and is talking of an outward-looking church being of service to others. So far, the Vatican is using these simple, humble tactics to position Pope Francis as a breath of fresh, revitalizing air for the Catholic church. Yet there has been no real change of policy. The new Pope feels different, but the papal message remains unchanged.
THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Pope Francis and his PR launch turning the media spotlight away from well-worn negative allegations.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Tactics over substance. No one doubts the conservative credentials of the new pope. His doctrinaire views on the traditional hot button issues – abortion, ordination of women, and birth control – are in no way a break from popes past. But tactically, he is changing the conversation about the Catholic Church. With a return to humility and service, he has shifted the focus from doctrinal issues to something less contentious. With no change to policy, this Pope has changed the communication of his message to something far more inclusive and less contentious. Tactical PR battles are often overlooked by the weight of substantive issues, but often it is the tone and emphasis in communication that makes all the difference. The Republican Party, currently looking to refashion its image and messaging, may want to take note.