For Twitter, a lofty purpose as Pope Benedict XVI makes his first tweet

Pope Benedict sent his first tweet using his handle @pontifex. The Pope writes: "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."
December 11, 2012

It may look as if Pope Benedict XVI’s first tweet on the auspicious date of 12/12/12 will be a divine act. But orchestrating the pontiff’s debut on Twitter has been a far more earthbound effort, involving an elaborate behind-the-scenes production.

In Vatican City, a Twitter employee will be by the pope’s side as he taps the screen to send pre-drafted messages in eight languages from his iPad. His first tweet will be his own words, the Vatican said, but someone else may actually type it for him. He will take at least three questions from his Twitter followers, but church officials from a group called the “Pontifical Council for Social Communications” will be overseeing the interaction.

Providing the white-glove coaching to top Catholic leaders is Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter’s pontiff recruitment chief, who has been in Rome for the past week to make sure the holiest of new members, @pontifex, becomes a social-media success.

The effort is part of Twitter’s powerful — not to mention low-cost — strategy to expand its influence and rack up more users by getting the world’s biggest names in sports, Hollywood, government and religion onto the Internet’s leading megaphone for self-promotion.

In the six years since its launch, Twitter has amassed a voluntary corps of famed faces that includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, Neil Young and Snooki of “Jersey Shore” reality television fame. These ambassadors create a butterfly effect of interest that has fueled the San Francisco company’s explosive growth to 140 million active users.

“We’ve always talked about Twitter as a place to get closer to your interests,” said Adam Sharp, a spokesman in charge of the site’s promotion of government and religious content. “With the pope and other faith-based efforts, we’ve found strong engagement from followers who retweet, favorite and reply to influential users.”

They are, in Twitter corporate-speak, “high-touch” clients, the focus of about 20 employees who circle the globe in hopes of getting new and powerful recruits. They approach the world’s most influential people with promises of free marketing, extra security against impostors and training to avoid the gaffes that have embarrassed some business executives and members of Congress.

Over the past two years, Sharp has pounded the halls of Capitol Hill, pitching the service to lawmakers. About one-third of them were on the site when he started. Today, he noted, nearly all members, “except for those who are retiring or probably about to retire,” are tweeting prolifically.

The pope’s debut has been an extended marketing event, with the announcement days ago of his own Twitter handle and plans for his first 140-character missive.

The Catholic Church said Bene­dict’s Twitter event Wednesday in the Paul VI Audience Hall will help it recruit young members. The Vatican has worked for months with Twitter staffers to promote itself through various accounts. And it said it is only natural for the pope to speak directly to the masses.

“Decades ago, people thought a pope wouldn’t go on radio or television, but we’ve seen all these mediums are important in fulfilling the mission,” said Greg Burke, a spokesman for the Vatican who said he believes the company first suggested the idea of the @pontifex account.

Twitter demurs from taking credit for the addition of influential users. But its staff is training its eyes on the top figures in government, religion, television, music, sports and entertainment. It announced on Tuesday an impressive list of new Twitter members in 2012, including Chelsea Clinton, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The participation of these stars can spell big returns for Twitter, a private company that one day hopes to turn all of its users’ information into financial returns through advertising and selling analytical information, experts say.

“Twitter is the world’s biggest polling site, where people are saying real-time how they feel about just about anything,” said Ray Wang, chief executive of the Constellation research firm. “It’s in­cred­ibly valuable information that you can’t really find anywhere else.”

Celebrities also keep ordinary users engaged on Twitter and returning for more.

Singer Beyonce Knowles’s first tweet in April was a simple greeting that directed users to her personal Web site. But it was “favorited” by 13,000 users and retweeted by 30,000.

Obama’s “Four more years” message after his reelection was retweeted 816,000 times, making it the most repeated tweet this year.

Second-highest was singer Justin Bieber’s “RIP Avalanna. i love you” message saying goodbye to a 6-year-old girl who died of cancer.

Religious leaders in particular tend to attract huge audiences and keep them engaged longer, said Sharp, the Twitter spokesman. And a large portion of users — about 40 percent — may not send tweets but hover on the site to keep up with messages from these world leaders.

One of the pope’s followers, Israeli President Shimon Peres, welcomed the pope to Twitter last week with his own tweet: “@Pontifex Your holiness, welcome to Twitter. Our relations with the Vatican are at their best & can form a basis to further peace everywhere”.

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Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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