Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Papal PR 

Popes know good PR, if one considers the communications effect of a Papal audience. I attended one in Rome along with five to eight thousand others who were seated, standing and bustling about in St. Peter's massive square. It was an instructive experience even from the back of the crowd. The pope was ferried into the square while standing in a white jeep. The jeep passed though and around the crowd in lanes kept clear by the Swiss Guard while the pope acknowledged the faithful. He dismounted and climbed the vast steps of St. Peter to a platform midway up where there was an open tent, microphones and several hundred faithful seated on either side of him. From where I stood, an ant seemed larger, but the Vatican has gone modern with Jumbotron TV screens on both sides of the square where his image is projected along with carefully amplified sound.

The public relations came in his address where he proceeded to speak in six languages to each major group there. The Vatican has PR down to a process. Before each mini address, a priest reads the names of groups in the audience from each country in the language of the country. The pope then speaks in that language using an address tailored to the country. Of course, the Italians were the loudest of all. They cheered and waved banners like soccer fans when their organizations were called.

The symbolic effect was clear. The Catholic Church shows its claim of universality during papal audiences and doesn't just state it. The Pope speaks in languages the faithful know best rather than forcing the faithful to translate. I can't think of another world leader who can or does speak in multiple languages regularly. Of course, few world leaders need to address more than peoples of countries they represent. The Catholic Church in its global claim has taken on a multilingual challenge.

It wasn't always this way. In Catholic Church history, popes have made historic PR gaffes, as members of other religions will attest. Further, they stayed with the dead language of Latin far too long because they assumed everyone who was anyone would speak and understand it. Finally, they were for hundreds of years Italo-centric, as if all Roman Catholics needed DNA from somewhere within Italy's borders. Post World War II, they started to understand their mission better and to venture out of Italy and away from the Vatican. The last pope made this a part of his duties. He understood that leaders come to followers and not vice versa.

One can criticize the Popes for taking so long to understand, but it is good to know that after 2000 years, leaders and organizations can still learn something new.

Where's the PR? All I can see is a perfectly maintained propaganda machine. No PR in terms of two-way symmetric. No conversation. It doesn't match my interpretation of PR.

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?