“Enjoy your lunch” - Pope Francis shows CEOs how it’s done: guest blog post from Peter Heath

March 20, 2013 by Peter Heath

It seems the Vatican has a media rock star on its hands. Pope Francis is, from the earliest moments of his Papacy, displaying communication skills the Catholic Church has long been in dire need of.

His early teachings extend way beyond the theological. As CEO of one of the most traditional, inflexible and hide-bound institutions the world has ever seen, the new Pontiff is showing business leaders a thing or two not only about the value and importance of effective corporate communication, but also about how it’s done.

PR is not a Tier Two function:

Make sure your senior communicators report directly to you and aren’t buried several rungs down the ladder in some restrictive silo like ‘marketing’. Give them a roving brief and extensive oversight of every part of the business that has any interaction with any type of stakeholder. As the BBC reports:

“The Jesuits, missionaries and educators, are trained to be expert communicators and it is significant that among the first people summoned to meet the new Pope at his hotel suite this morning was fellow Jesuit Father Lombardi – official Vatican spokesperson, head of Vatican Radio (run for many years by the Jesuits) and of the Vatican Press Office.

“Under Pope Benedict, Father Lombardi was a mere functionary who had no direct access to the pontiff.

He could not pick up the phone and talk things through quickly with Benedict himself. He received orders from the Vatican Secretariat of State and briefed the press accordingly. All that has changed overnight.”

Invest in media relationships and let journalists get to know you:

Like it or not, media are an immensely important audience for any organisation of size. Only last week I met a chief executive who told me he was only interested in dealing with media “as a last resort, only when I *******- well have to. That’s why I want you on board – that would be your job.” I wished him well and told him I wasn’t able to help him.

This Saturday – just three days into his Papacy – Francis made an important investment in media relations. He delivered a frank, wide-ranging lecture (for it wasn’t a traditional press conference, as such) to hundreds of journalists on where he’d be trying to take the Catholic Church. He charmed the hacks with his many off-the-cuff, unscripted comments and some genuine humour – these very human moments featuring large in the resulting coverage precisely because they were so unusual coming from a Pontiff.

In his very first Angelus this Sunday he uttered a line that underscores his appreciation of the role the media have to play in the future wellbeing of the Church. From that balcony above St Peter’s Square he addressed not just those gathered below, not just Romans, not just Italians and not just Catholics when he said: “It’s important for us Christians to meet and talk together in this square. Through the media, we are gathering together like this across the whole world.”

This reforming Pope is girding his loins for a monumental battle against the Curia – the all-powerful and allegedly corrupt Vatican bureaucracy – and he knows full well that he’s going to need people-power on his side to make any headway at all.

Explain yourself; consistently and clearly:

Francis has gone out of his way to let it be known from the first moments of his Papacy that, although he has conservative views on social issues such as contraception and homosexuality, he has a reforming agenda aimed at bringing the Catholic Church closer to the faithful. His every action has spoken of this agenda – from the much-publicised mini-bus trip back from the Conclave and his choice of vestments, through to the impromptu walk-about preceding his maiden Angelus.

Tear down that ivory tower. Know your audiences. Engage with them and speak directly to their concerns:

I’ve blogged before about the importance of the Human Element when it comes to effective relationship-building. The Papacy will (probably) always be burdened by a high degree of pomp, circumstance and distance from its primary audience, but at this early stage Francis appears to be doing everything within his power to narrow the yawning chasm that exists between the Church and its people by listening to, and addressing, their concerns.

This has real bearing on everyday corporate management. Just this morning Milford Asset Management fund manager Brian Gaynor praised Mighty River Power Chairwoman Joan Withers for her straight-talking approach to her relationship with the financial market.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Chairmen, Churches or Corporations: if you can demonstrate your humanity, your human face, and speak to people in language they can identify with, your business communication battles are half won. I mean, seriously, how many Popes have ever stood on that balcony in St Peter’s Square and urged the masses assembled below to “have a good lunch”?

Quite often the media are among the first to appreciate and acknowledge good PR. So I wrap up with the wise words of Beeb reporter David Willey:

“(Francis) shows a vivid awareness that prayer may not be enough to deal with the situation facing the Catholic Church at this critical moment in its long history. Public relations will be a priority at a particularly sensitive moment of papal transition.”

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