Before the Papal three-ring-circus moved into town, I was asked by a number of media outlets what I thought of the Pope’s PR apparatus. At the time, I commented that it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this anachronistic throwback was not fit for modern media purpose. Lacking charisma (in stark contrast with his predecessor, John Paul II), I suggested that Benedict would find it difficult to counter the unease at his tour of Britain. I suggested he was not “God’s Showman” – not instinctively sharp, witty or insightful and with a poor history in delivering the one-liners and sound bites that are the foundation of being a 21st century media success.
This feeling was exacerbated by Benedict’s pontificate walking its way into problems of its own making. Who can forget Fr Raniero Cantalamessa making a less than clever comparison between “attacks” on the church, prompted by the sex-abuse crisis, and the sufferings of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. It surely wouldn’t be long before the other wheels fell off the wagon.
After all, how could this dogmatic frontman deal with the list of issues that had large numbers of people speaking out against the church; issues such as Catholic opposition to the distribution of condoms, so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of Aids? Or the promotion of segregated education; denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women; opposing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights, including universal decriminalisation of homosexuality; failing to address the many cases of abuse of children within its own organization?
This was a long list that could sink any ship and Benedict has offended Muslims, Jews, gays and clerical sex-abuse victims in the course of his pontificate. It would take quite a spin-doctor to sort all this out. In short, Pope Benedict was a PR’s nightmare, with the odds firmly stacked against him. It didn’t help that the voices opposing him were experts on giving great sound bite. War horses like Peter Tatchell told the BBC News Channel: “We profoundly disagree with the Pope’s opposition to women’s rights, gay equality and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.”
The tour did not start well. The Vatican PR minders flooded the market with excruciatingly embarrassing leaflets produced by the papal visit team, which compared the Mass to a “gig”, the Pope to a “headline act” and liturgists to “performers”. Then Cardinal Walter Kasper prompted controversy on the eve of the visit by comparing Britain to a third world country and refusing to apologise for his comments.
Out of nowhere, however, a sombre suit took control; someone inside the organisation had the sound sense to focus on the Pope’s little known strengths. Letting the real Benedict be seen over the course of this visit has changed his image forever. Suddenly we were being sold an old-fashioned but relevant leader. Serenaded by SuBo, he warned against the culture of celebrity. “Become Saints Not Celebs”; “We live in a celebrity culture and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment.”; “My question for you is this: What are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What person would you most like to be?”
Whoever promoted this idea deserves beatification. These images played straight into the tabloid heartland. We were now contemplating the image of a spiritual man, not aloof, austere or out of touch. Impromptu walkabouts and classic photo call opportunities yielded traction – much like those that were forged from Pope John Paul II’s 1982 visit. From this point on it became a love in, a religious Glastonbury. The pomp and ritual of the papal tour was backed up by wall-to-wall media and TV coverage and frenzied and adoring crowds. This was old-fashioned hype magnified.
The demonstrators were neutered by a surprisingly assured frontal assault. Protesters were drowned out by the media’s papal positivity. Part of the problem was that, after months of increasingly shrill rhetoric from the anti-Pope movement, during the actual visit they delivered nothing more than a medium-sized demo that never raised itself beyond the predictable and ordinary. There were no surprises, just placard waving negativity – the media agenda had moved far beyond this.
Church commentators have a tendency to suggest that the origins of past PR gaffes by Pope Benedict are linked to the quality of his advisers and the news management of the pontiff. Well, whoever was in charge of this tour pulled off one of the most remarkable PR coups of the last ten years. Benedict charmed his way through very turbulent waters. The pièce de résistance was to convince the sceptics, with his heartfelt words of sorrow during mass at Westminster Cathedral, that he sincerely wants to tackle the “unspeakable crimes” of paedophile priests, which were covered up for so long by the church. Game, set and match – for this tour at least.
I doubt this extravaganza will have changed his image forever, but it is a salutary lesson for PR folk. No matter how desperate the cause, there is always hope that you can turn events around. There are occasions we don’t need to reinvent or restructure, just capitalize on the opportunities at our disposal. “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven.”