Pope Benedict’s lesson on strategic communication

I came home from Sunday Mass today and opened up the Dallas Morning News to this headline: “Pope to Priests: Go forth and blog.”

On the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and writers, it’s a timely announcement. While I’m the first to admit that John Paul II would be a very hard act to follow, Benedict XVI has shown a remarkable interest in using new media to spread the Gospel, and he has a broad following among youth. The Vatican now has a YouTube channel, a papal Web portal (Pope2You) and an iPhone APP, although I don’t think he’s playing “Farmville” on Facebook.

In his message the Holy Father states that a mere presence on the Web is not enough, and he implied knowledge of strategic communications that I’ve not witnessed from the Vatican before now. It’s almost like he’s taken my “PR Communication” class, in which everyone must have a blog.

In fact, this directive is part of the Pope’s message “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word” announcing the theme of World Communications Day on Sunday May 16.

Now I’m pretty sure the Holy Father isn’t expecting our pastors to replace their homilies with a blog, nor do I see us texting in confession any time soon. But it is encouraging to see the strategic use of social media being endorsed by the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination. When he says “The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts” he’s also describing what all communicators should be doing: Targeting the message to the audience and using appropriate tools.

The pope reminds priests (and us) that social media can be used to build “a vast and real fellowship” which is a lesson all of us in the communications field should know and use to the benefit of our clients. The document reminds us that the prophet Isaiah envisioned “…a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:7) and suggests that we can use the Web much as the “Court of Gentiles” was used in the Temple of Jerusalem–as a place “for those who have not yet come to know God.”

While I’m not sure the Holy See would appreciate my secularizing their message, the truth is social media is already being used by marketers and issues managers to build awareness of their products and causes, and to engage a loyal community in fruitful discussion and activism to mutual benefit. Recent tragic events indicate that radical Islamists are already on the Internet bandwagon in order to strategically proselytize and recruit people to their cause. So I think it’s good that the Vatican is taking some cues from the real world and encouraging the use of social media by those on the homefront of spiritual leadership.

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