For anybody in the information business, Pope Francis would be a dream, and a nightmare, to work for. He is a natural communicator, whose openness and vulnerability somehow come across the airwaves. But the most memorable moments of his papacy, such as his long public embrace of a man terribly disfigured by a skin disease, are completely unscripted. Perhaps they have to be. And every so often, he will say something edgy that clearly defies any PR advice he is getting: for example, when he responded to the massacre of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine by insisting that people should avoid insulting what others hold sacred. Whatever you may think of that particular comment, a charismatic religious leader will always reserve the right to spring surprises.
But the pope, like anybody else whose words are followed by hundreds of millions of people, does need professional assistance with disseminating his words, in real time and with swift translation into lots of languages. Today, for example, Catholics in many countries were waiting to hear the Pope’s annual Easter message urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) which as is customary combined the spiritual with the topical: he denounced a suicide bombing which killed more than 100 people, mostly refugees, in Syria, as well as the spectre of hunger looming in parts of Africa.
Somebody has to handle the Vatican’s Twitter account, @Pontifex, which has 12.8m followers in Spanish and 10.6m in English. In June 2015, Francis launched an effort to streamline the Holy See’s output of messages by creating an all-embracing Secretariat for Communications, responsible for radio, television and social media as well as written documents. Its first director, Monsignor Dario Vigano, was a self-proclaimed fan of digital communication with a soft spot for Walt Disney.
And just in the last few days, the Pope intrigued American Catholics, in particular, by naming two new advisers to the Secretariat who represent very different flavours of religion in the United States. One is Father James Martin, a brainy and liberal-minded Jesuit who is a prolific author, a business-school graduate and an adept user of Twitter with 100,000 personal followers. The other is Michael Warsaw, a more conservative figure who has been chief executive of Eternal Way Television Network (EWTN), a Catholic broadcasting operation which claims to reach over 200m households in 100 countries. EWTN was started by Mother Angelica, a traditionally clad nun, in a converted garage in Birmingham, Alabama.
Conservative Catholic commentators are already grumbling over the elevation of Father Martin, whose writings include a book on how the church could build better relations with gay people. In response to the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines aircraft, Father Martin blogged that such things reflect the pathologies of capitalism. He is a contributing editor to America magazine, a heavy-weight liberal journal. On a lighter note, he has written a book entitled “Between Heaven and Mirth” about the importance of humour in religion.
Whatever the differences, Father Martin and Mr Warsaw have something in common: both personify the sub-contracting of the information business to new, flexible and interactive structures. In a way, the whole idea of single, all-powerful communications secretariat looks rather old-fashioned, unless that secretariat can be persuaded to share its mission with lots of independent players. Now the Pope will be receiving advice from two Americans who can tactfully explain that point.