The Holy Communicator: PR Lessons from Pope Francis

By Kevin Sullivan

When Pope Francis unexpectedly skipped a Beethoven concert at the Vatican Saturday due to “other commitments,” some media reports suggested the pontiff was once again sending a message against the Holy See’s tradition of “pomp and ceremony.” 

The imagery of the empty papal chair in a wire service photo was powerful.  According to the London Telegraph, the “Pope's decision to avoid the concert was given added significance by the fact that he chose instead to meet nuncios – who represent the Church around the world but have complained about little access in the Vatican's corridors of power.”

Upon his March 17 election, Pope Francis demonstrated abundant gratitude and humility – two sure-fire ways to connect with your audience.  His first tweet from his @pontifex account set the tone:  “Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me.”  Two days later he tweeted:  “True power is service.  The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.” 

He clearly had given careful thought about delivering a message that was authentic for him, supported his mission and would resonate with his audience.

But from a communications standpoint, what has been most impressive about Pope Francis’ first 100 days is that he backed up his message of service with actions.

He chose a simple apartment over the papal residence.  He wears an iron cross instead of gold.  He opted for an open-air Popemobile.  He gave a blessing to 35,000 bikers visiting Rome – not from a balcony, but while greeting them in St. Peter’s Square.  On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis washed the feet of prison inmates, including a Muslim.

Remembering Pope Francis’ lesson that carefully crafted and field-tested messages are only a start – that action is required to make them real and credible – would benefit many political leaders and executives as they pore over their latest talking points and prepared remarks.