The biggest PR job in 2013? How the Catholic Church did Reputation Management

The biggest PR job in 2013? How the Catholic Church did Reputation Management

8th January 2014

At the beginning of 2013 the Catholic Church was in a really bad place. They were on the news daily, but not in a way they wanted. The news was dominated with scandals, mostly about priests misbehaving themselves, in current or past times. Pope Benedict was far from popular at that time. He had to manage these scandals and at the same time was confronted with financial issues and had just ‘recovered’ from an issue where his personal butler was caught and convicted for stealing and leaking confidential papers. The church also faced a lot of criticism for its internal bank’s failures and the pope himself had gone wrong by insulting the Islamic people. On top of that he didn’t really have the vibrant personality of a leader who can change things around.

The Catholic Church probably was in the worst place since the Middle Ages when different popes were fighting each other. Something had to be done.

Now it’s early 2014 and we have been looking back on the year for the past weeks. Which means many were writing articles about ‘best X,Y,Z of the year’. Some we see each year, like Google’s Zeitgeist (what we searched for most), some are new, and, to be really fair, most are useless. One of the most eye catching ones however was one we see every year, Time’s person of the Year. Time named Pope Francis, “The People’s Pope”, person of the Year, followed this week by a stunning ‘Pope Francis is the ‘Best Dressed Man of 2013? voted by Esquire. Seriously?

Within 12 months (actually less) the Catholic Church went from being one of the most haunted institutions to an institution who’s leader is now considered the most important and most influential person in the world. What happened?

You could say The Vatican pulled the greatest marketing effort (no, not a trick) of all time, or at least 2013, they did reputation management like no-one before and turned things around almost 180 degrees. How did they do that? And what can we learn from it? Time to look at it more closely.

First of all, I’d like to make something clear: I was born and raised a Catholic but am not practicing that at the moment, I don’t go to church. As some of you know I studied history and for that reason I have a special interest in things like the Vatican, because they have played a big role in the world throughout history. This article is written from that angle: there is no judgement on any of the actions from the catholic church or the Vatican in specific. I stand for from all the ‘bad things’ which have occurred in the past, that is not a discussion I want to get into here. Also I am not saying that the Vatican ‘tricked’ us in any way when it comes to how we look at the catholic church at the moment. I also have no inside information on how they actually work, so all of this is based on observations from the outside. What I want to do is look at what happened and see if we as marketers can learn something from it.

I’d like to take a look from the outside perspective, looking at how they handled reputation management and what lessons we can take away from this. Over the holidays (what better time than Christmas right? 😉 ) I went through many articles on the web and in magazines and found that there is much to learn.

The Surprise element and being vague

At almost the lowest point in reputation for the Catholic Church things changed radically.

During a gathering with cardinals on February 11th Pope Benedict was reading out a message which suddenly changed everything. In the middle of his talk he suddenly started talking about his own job and his own position. He stated that he had “examined his conscience before God” and came to the conclusion that his health and strength were not adequate enough to continue doing what he was doing. He was resigning.

The world was in shock. For several reasons. Mostly of course because in 600 years this had never happened, a pope resigning! Immediately the press was all over it. Why was he resigning? What would happen now? All of a sudden, from one day to another the discussion was moved a bit away from the scandals and towards a different topic: the pope leaving.

What can we learn from this as marketers?

Of course there were many theories on why he was doing this, I won’t go into them here, but the fact that the Vatican was a tiny bit vague about this gave people reason to talk and to create rumours. Now as a company you don’t want rumours which are negative of course, but you have to keep in mind where they came from: they probably preferred these rumours to the stories which were in the news in the months prior to the announcement. They shifted the topic discussed slightly. It is a method that Apple has used successfully in the past as well, getting people to talk about you because you don’t tell them everything, just a little bit.

The biggest lesson here however is not the shifting of the debate, but the surprise element. The Vatican didn’t send out any official message prior to this announcement. The announcement wasn’t made in a ‘public’ appearance of the pope, but rather in one which was ‘in between their own’. It just happened to be recorded and broadcasted as well.

And somehow none of this had come out prior to the announcement. Though you would expect someone would have leaked such big news. It didn’t, which is why the surprise element was so big. The world was ‘in shock’. The first step was taken.

The psychology of tradition, community and anticipation

After the pope had resigned it immediately was clear that a new pope had to be found, and rather quickly as well because the new pope had to be elected before Easter, almost within a month. So at that point of time there were two discussions going on at the same time: why did pope Benedict leave, but also: who’s next? Which Cardinal will replace Benedict? Will it be a progressive one or a traditional one? Who will it be?

The always interesting waiting game began when the cardinals gathered in Rome to decide who would be the next pope in the conclave. This tradition makes people get together on St Peter’s Square waiting for the white smoke to come out of the chimney which means a new pope has been elected.

What can we learn from this as marketers?

The conclave isn’t a marketing strategy, it’s a centuries old tradition. And that is not something marketers should copy, but the setting around the conclave however has many things in it which a marketer could relate to. It is partly consumer psychology what happened here.

Tradition: people love traditions. Anything which is traditional usually is received positively. Not because people agree with what goes on, but because it gives them a feeling of secureness. And people want to feel secure. They want to feel that what is going on is something they can trust upon. And what better trust than something which has been done the same way for ages? Now the Catholic Church has tradition, in right and wrong ways, written all over it. So keeping their traditions was very important. The Conclave had to be done as it has always been done. Marketers would have to look a bit further to use traditions, but like with Santa Claus, traditions can be made…

Community building: A big element in marketing is tribal building, something Seth Godin is big in. It’s exactly what happened in Rome as well. The people gathering on the square, news outlets around the world reporting on whether or not there is smoke coming out of the papal chimney, and billions of people watching that at home. Whether they are religious or not, they were all looking forward to seeing the white smoke appear. Which creates a bond. As soon as people see they have a similar interest, they start to bond. So when the day came that there was white smoke coming out of the chimney, they had created a strong bond. Because others were there, there was ’social proof’, a very important element in marketing. And the centre of that bond was the Catholic Church. And what we as marketers know is that if you have a good feeling about a brand because your friends are connected to it as well, that feeling will stick for a while.

Anticipation: Again this is something which Apple can do like almost no other brand, creating the anticipation. As said, the conclave is centuries old tradition so the Church didn’t have to do much here to get the anticipation going. They just needed to time things well. Don’t elect a pope too soon, but don’t wait too long either. If the smoke in the chimney would have been white right away people would probably not trust it or at least the anticipation would have been missing, which creates a stronger bond and a bigger feeling of commitment. Of course if it would have taken too long people would lose interest. So the two days and five rounds it took to elect Pope Francis were spot on.

I’ve seen this picture in so many presentations this last year, it just had to be in this post!

Think about who you are targeting

One of the most important lessons when it comes to marketing is knowing your target audience and understanding what they want and most importantly: understanding who they are and what their values are. When Pope Francis had to choose his papal name he chose the name Francis for a reason. The name was taken from Francis of Assisi. The story behind Francis is very important for looking at the Pope: Francis of Assisi renounced his father’s wealth and devoted his life to the poor. Pope Francis was telling the world by choosing this name that he would do the same: leave the past behind and head into a new direction, that of the “poor”, or maybe better said: the average Joe. And that average Joe is exactly the type of audience the Catholic Church was looking for.


Doing things differently (seemingly)

If you want to stand out in marketing you have to be different. People have to notice you. Otherwise you will just blend in to all the other brands around and you will not necessarily be picked over another brand. The Vatican of course had almost no other choice than to do things differently. If they would have gone in the exact same direction as before attention would have drifted away again and the focus would be back on the ‘bad things’ from the past. And boy did they (mostly Pope Francis of course) do things different.

It started with his name of course, but Pope Francis didn’t stop there. Him being the first Jesuit and the first South-American Pope was a nice thing, but he decided he could do so much more. On the night of his election he appeared on the balcony for the first time, like every new elected Pope. But Francis decided to do things different. First of all the way he was dressed: simple. He didn’t wear all the shiny stuff he predecessors wore, like the golden shoes, but he wore simple clothes. He also refused to use a platform which would make him elevate above the cardinals next to him. And then the way he said hello to the world. Like a normal guy, different from any Pope before, he simply said:

“As you know, the duty of the conclave was to appoint a new Bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from faraway. But here I am. I would like to thank you for your embrace.”

With that he didn’t just do things differently, he added another marketing ingredient to the sauce humor.

What can we learn from this as marketers?

The most important lessons from a marketing point of view here are the fact that things are done differently. You could say Pope Francis pulled of a brilliant piece of disruptive marketing. People definitely woke up here. And that is something we can learn as marketers: look at your audience, understand what they want and then surprise them by doing something different, which is in line with what the audience wants, but maybe not expects.

[Tweet “Good marketing: Telling the right stories and sticking to it.”]

In the months after his election Pope Francis and his people knew very well how to take things to the next level. The strategy was set: being different (sounds like Steve Jobs had a hand in this again doesn’t it?). And he kept that strategy up. On a regular basis stories would come out which would show how ‘normal’ Pope Francis had remained. Just a few examples of stories that came out:

– The pictures of Pope Francis normal shoes, compared with Benedict red shoes

– Not staying in the Papal apartments.

pope-being-funny– The story of washing the feet of two young women prisoners and two Muslims on Holy Thursday

– Praying with and washing sick people (by the way something which Pope Benedict did as well, there however wasn’t any attention for that)

– Be funny at times when he could be (see the picture on the right)

– Letting a little boy (who might have been his nephew, but that is not sure) stay with him on stage

– Sneaking out of the Vatican at night and help feed the poor (what a great story is that!)

– Re-opening the Pontifex Twitter account

And of course the one we marketers were most excited about: taking a selfie (though technically it wasn’t him taking the picture, but who cares right).

AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano, ho, file/Riccardo Aguiari
AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano, ho, file/Riccardo Aguiari

There were tons of stories out there, and still are, about all the good things he does. And it has to be said: he really does do good things. But as said, Pope Benedict did some of these things as well, but he never got the attention. And notice something else: none of this is about actual opinions of the Pope. It’s all ‘image’. Marketing wise, a great job.

What can we learn from this as marketers?

Set a strategy and stick to it is the most important lesson here. The strategy Pope Francis took was be different and be there for the poor. And he has not let that go. Marketers have to do the same thing. When deciding on the message you want to send out you create campaigns around that and then you stick to it. Whatever you do, don’t go spreading a different message. It has to be the right story, which you stick to.

Using the right influentials

Finally, in the age of influence marketing (though I’ve said many times before that actually that type of marketing is exactly as old as the Catholic Church itself) Pope Francis knows that talking to the right people is important. So he did. He talked to journalists more than any Pope before, but he didn’t ‘just’ talk to them. He found the right people, and let them talk about him.

First of all there is the type of stories about what he does which are being leaked out of the Vatican. The rumour mentioned above about him leaving the Vatican at night to help feed the poor is a fantastic story. It works perfect for his image, but the most important part here is: he doesn’t talk about this himself, nor does the Vatican. The story is out there and the Vatican just lets it go. Because after all, it’s a great story.

Secondly the Vatican and the Pope know who to talk to. They don’t just talk to any journalist, but handpick some of them. Like for example Eugenio Scalfari, who wrote a book about all the scandals in the Vatican a year before and who is known to be very atheist and who had written critical things about this Pope as well. Francis called him (yes in person!) and asked to meet him. When the meeting was arranged the first thing Pope Francis said was ‘don’t worry, I’m not going to try and get you to believe.” He just came to exchange thoughts, not to teach a lesson. This lead to much more positive stories about him, including a specific one from Scalfari.

What can we learn from this as marketers?

The lessons here are simple: let the right people talk about you. Create stories, but don’t tell them yourself, let others tell your stories. That is much more valuable. And when it comes to influentials: find the right ones and make sure they have a positive feeling about you. Not by sending them information, but by actually talking to them.

Conclusion: marketing campaign of the year?

So, after looking at almost a year of Pope Francis in charge of the Catholic Church we can say one thing for sure: the image of the ‘brand’ Catholic Church has most definitely been improved a lot. Again, this is just by looking at things from the outside, so I don’t know how much of this has been ‘fate’ or how much has been orchestrated, but looking through the eyes of a marketer you can sure say they pulled off one hell of a job (if you can say that 😉 ). Don’t you agree?

Oh and to end this very long article: how about this picture for perfect timing and visual marketing? 😉

Photo: Domenico Stinellis / AP
Photo: Domenico Stinellis / AP


Written By
Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.
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