Information sharing is seen as crucial to next pope’s success

February 23, 2013

The cardinals who file into the Sistine Chapel for next month’s conclave will check their newspapers, cellphones and iPads at the door. The frescoed chamber will have been swept for bugs. If the last conclave is any guide, the ­prelates will cast secret ballots on a floor raised to make room for electronic jamming equipment.

As paramount as privacy is to the deliberations for selecting the next pope, sharing information will be critical to that pontiff’s success. When Benedict XVI’s successor is introduced on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica with the cry of “Habemus Papam,” his name and message will be liked on Facebook pages, blasted out on a Twitter account that has more than 1.5 million followers, downloaded onto a Vatican YouTube channel, linked in Catholic blogs and introduced across multiple platforms tended to by a small Vatican office off the Via della Conciliazione.

“The important thing for us is that people are sharing,” said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the church’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Celli oversees News.va, a hub for church news. On Saturday its homepage, designed in the Vatican’s white and yellow colors, featured the pope’s Twitter feed, MP3 audio files of the speeches of popular Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi during the pope’s Lenten retreat and video of the massive crowd that showed up for one of the pope’s last public appearances. (But no gifs.) The site attracts about 15,000 visitors a day, nearly half of whom are new visitors. The average time they spend on the site, Celli said, is 2 minutes 20 seconds. “They are not there by chance,” he said. “They came to read.”

The Vatican is not the only government eager to promulgate its message directly to its target audience. The Obama administration’s efforts to avoid traditional news filters (something it has openly embraced since MyBarack­Obama.com, or “MyBO” in the 2008 campaign) is being debated in some Washington circles.

For the Vatican, the benefits of such a strategy are obvious. The church has long viewed the secular press as antagonistic and interested only in scandals and tension. Church officials say they face a nearly universal disinterest in papal speeches and church conferences. Their increased emphasis on making church content shareable not only is consistent with how people increasingly process news and information, but it also fits neatly into the evangelistic mission at the church’s core.

“To us, it seemed an opportunity to be there where people meet, where men communicate and create relationships and search,” Celli, an eloquent archbishop and veteran of the Vatican’s elite diplomatic corps, said in a recent interview.

Lack of understanding

Celli’s the-old-folks-just-don’t-understand spiel wouldn’t be out of place in the sleek white offices of social media hubs such as Buzzfeed. “I don’t even think that there is a force voluntarily against this,” he said of the opposition to social media in the Vatican. “It’s that we have people who belong to another culture. Many people still have an instrument-based view of communication. I have an instrument, an iPhone. There is no understanding that there is another world, a network that we all live in together. There isn’t this understanding.

Vatican officials can be dismissive of social media engagement. Some Vatican observers say Celli, who served in the secretary of state’s office under John Paul II, has been relegated to an uninfluential communications department because of the current administration’s disregard for the diplomatic corps and its disinterest in social media. Whatever the case, Celli has made the most of his time in the job. Under Celli, a small, international group of church news aggregators has kept a universe of Catholic bloggers, YouTube and social media increasingly well fed.

“We have a whole world of Catholic bloggers, a whole world of believer journalists who need something to work with,” said Monsignor Paul Tighe, Celli’s deputy. “Let’s feed our base. Everything is built to be shared.”

The vast majority of the attention on the Vatican’s communications efforts has been negative. Benedict committed repeated public relations missteps, marring his papacy and raising doubts about whether he or his closest advisers understood the modern media environment. The press office also seemed unequal to the task of enforcing message discipline. The consummation of those woes came last year, when a scandal stemming from the pope’s leaked correspondence consumed the Vatican. In response, the office of Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who operates as the Vatican’s prime minister, hired Greg Burke, a former Fox News reporter and member of Opus Dei, a conservative and influential Catholic lay organization.

“The people who decided this felt they needed a better relationship with journalists in the world of communications. And they wanted to have an adviser,” said Celli, who said he held Burke in high esteem. “But the problem is figuring out what sense this all has inside the Holy See, to understand what his actual role is. What’s his mission?”

Clarity over transparency

Burke, who has become the American face and voice of the Vatican since the pope’s resignation, has sought to impose more consistency across a church full of disparate voices. He described himself as the vector of policy and communications and said his goal was “to better craft the message.”

The traditional spokesman is the avuncular Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit priest with a cluttered office and a bad cough. Before Benedict’s resignation, Lombardi talked about “a gradually increasing transparency in communication” and a higher frequency of briefings. But he warned about the risks of oversharing. Like many other church officials, including Celli, he bristled at the WikiLeaks brand of transparency that manifested itself in the leaked-letters scandal known as VatiLeaks. “Absolute transparency can be a violation.”

Lombardi said he often finds himself agreeing with Burke, with whom he was planning to meet, along with Celli’s deputy, Tighe, a few minutes later to discuss Twitter. “He’s outside right now,” he said, nodding toward the door.

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