Lessons for business from the Pope’s social media strategy

Lessons for business from the Pope's social media strategy


When the leader of one of the most conservative organisations in the world is on Twitter, it shows how pervasive social media has become as a communications and marketing tool.

The Roman Catholic Church is expressly conservative in regard to all sorts of social issues. It may not be the type of organisation you would immediately think of as embracing the social media revolution, but even the Pope has come to realise that effectively communicating the message of the church means using social media to talk to his followers and potential converts. To translate that in crude business terms, we’re talking customers and potential customers.

The Pope’s social media strategy was evident during his recent visit to the US. The Vatican had engaged several digital firms to make sure the Pope was positioned prominently across social media networks, with a special focus on engaging with younger followers through the use of hashtags such as #PopeisHope and #GoodisWinning and “Popemojis”.

There are some important lessons for business in the fact Pope Francis (@pontifex on Twitter) has taken to social media.


He’s a leader/CEO


Up until Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church had been an almost mythical figure, removed from the daily hustle and bustle of normal life. This is a little like how we may have once viewed the chief executives of major corporations; if not semi-mythical, they were certainly more distant figures, operating from a realm far removed from we mere mortals.

However, the world has changed greatly in this regard in the past couple of decades and a massive part of that changed way of thinking has come about because of the access social media has given us to the thoughts of so many different people, including leaders.

While the Pope has warned about the dangers of social media, he and his team of advisers know that to hit the audience they need to reach – young people – he needs to be on social media.

Leaders such as CEOs and the Pope have realised that to be relevant and part of the conversation, they (or at least a communications team they trust) have to be listening and talking to people on social media.

The imagined psychological distance between people in communicating with each other has been diminished because of the ‘intimate’ nature of social media: more and more we are speaking one-to-one or in smaller ‘chat’ type situations rather than the old broadcast model of one-to-many.

The leader who is not engaged with social media runs the risk of making themselves ‘distant’ from their audience and losing the ability to influence through this more personal means of communication.


Conservative organisation


The Roman Catholic Church, as represented by the Pope and the Vatican, is certainly not noted for its progressive views on a lot of social matters. Many business owners (at least those not talking themselves up as “disruptors”) might share a little of the church’s conservative streak and perhaps display some wariness about the ‘trendiness’ of social media.

In fact, according to the 2015 Sensis Social Media Report, social media presence among small and medium-sized businesses is still only at around the 30% mark, while for big business it is around the 55% mark. These figures of course do come back to the amount of resources SMEs might have in comparison to big business to throw at a social media strategy, but they do show that many business operators and managers remain sceptical about return on investment from social media.

As the Vatican and the Pope prove, social media is definitely not just the domain of fashion retailers and tech businesses. Even the most traditional of businesses should now be looking at implementing a forward-looking digital strategy that includes a well-considered social media component which engages with their stakeholders.


Control the narrative


The Catholic Church has had its share of controversies over the past few years and it has struggled to maintain control of its branding and reputation as a consequence. The Vatican has been busily trying to rectify and repair its damaged brand over the past couple of years with some heavy duty reputation management, much of it focused on utilising digital marketing channels to engage directly with followers and wrestle back the narrative from news organisations.

The relative turnaround in the reputation of the church can probably be partly attributed to the more dynamic Pope Francis replacing Pope Benedict, along with the capacity the Vatican now has in promoting its stories and messages through digital marketing channels. The church has become proactive rather than reactive, which means it now has more control over how it is perceived by its followers as well as neutrals.

It’s very easy for a business to have its reputation tarnished in the digital age: bad reviews, malicious posts and erroneous news stories can all quickly jettison the good work a business has done to build its reputation over the years. By engaging a strong digital strategy, including targeted and relevant social media, a business can at the very least put its own story out there for consumers to judge.

It’s a strategy that has certainly been working for the Pope and the Catholic church in recent times.

Fi Bendall is CEO of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award. See more at: http://www.bendalls.com.au/


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