Thought Leadership

Of conclaves and communication: As Cardinals gather in Rome, there are lessons for communicators everywhere

The papal conclave has begun in Vatican City – an event that has significance not just for America’s 78 million Catholics, but also for communicators everywhere. Regardless of one’s faith or views about Pope Benedict XIV and his church, the papal succession presents a fascinating case study of one of the world’s most venerable institutions facing the challenge of communicating in an era of dramatic change.

The recent history of the church contains a narrative familiar to many organizations: a leader succeeds a more charismatic predecessor. He’s challenged to communicate with a massive, multicultural, multilingual follower base — with changing attitudes and a greater propensity to question authority. An empowered community of activists demands greater transparency and accountability for serious misdeeds in some quarters of the organization. And the organization’s hierarchy is more suited to outbound communication than open dialogue.

In Australia a little over two years ago, I shared a stage with Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. An astute communicator, he is one of the Vatican’s most senior media figures. Here are some insights I took away from that dialogue with him, which seem particularly relevant today — not just to the church, but to all organizations.

1.       Modern communication is not about the microphone. The dynamic in most church services is one of speaker and audience, and Monsignor Tighe pointed out that its leaders used each new technology – such as radio and television — as “a better microphone” to amplify their message. Today, however, people don’t want to receive a message passively; they want to discuss or dismiss, interpret or reinterpret the message. The audience must take part in the conversation.

2.       Today’s communication revolution is not technological; it’s cultural. The advent of the Internet and social networks has given us more than new tools; these advances are changing the way we interact with one another. We form relationships and communities with less need and desire for intermediaries — unless they add tangible value.

3.       Don’t aim for uniformity; aim for communion. While the basic structure of a Catholic mass is universal, the specific context varies dramatically in different regions, countries and cultures. This is a challenge for many multinational organizations — delivering on a consistent ‘brand’ experience while showing sensitivity and adaptability to different cultural contexts.

In most of the industrialized world, participation in organized religion is on the decline. It would, however, be wrong to interpret this as a loss of interest in matters of spirituality and meaning in life; if anything, our desire for connection, relationship and mutual understanding is deeper than ever.

In centuries past, the world’s major religions pioneered communication on a massive scale, using not just the written and spoken word, but a rich array of visual tools and strategies that brought people together — even in times of limited mobility and literacy.

The challenge for today’s faith leaders — like those in many organizations — is to rediscover that leadership, and to use communication to facilitate genuine dialogue, human engagement and mutual understanding. May they have wise communicators to advise them.

Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, is Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. He is based in Toronto as CEO of Argyle Communications, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society

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