By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology; President, Media & Communications Strategies
Everyone knows the Catholic Church is laboring through a sensitive time of crisis of faith and credibility right now following priest sex scandals and questions by its flock about the church’s political and social dogma. Let’s put aside who or what chose Pope Francis and take away additional branding and PR lessons from what he has done and is doing, at least from what we see publically:
Walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk. Pope Francis decided to choose his new name that set a tone for his brand and the church’s rebranding of serving the poor and at the same time he dropped the ornate garments of his predecessor and rode on a bus with fellow priests to his public appointments.
The Pontiff didn’t just choose a symbolic name but immediately created credibility in his brand by taking action that said, hey I mean what I say, believe me, believe I will take the church (my organization) in this direction. It’s like the new CEO of a food manufacturer with a product contamination problem saying, “My company problems are being fixed, our foods are now safe,” and then publically taking a bite out of his company’s hot dogs.
The buck stops here. Pope Francis has not only been seen and heard from a high balcony at the Vatican, removed from his public, he has been making statements to reporters, seen with his flock and photographed petting a blind guest’s guide dog. The previous Pope almost always spoke from script while Pope Francis has been speaking off-the-cuff, no script, speaking from the heart.
He is connecting and relating to the common man, that congregation, that target audience, he has spoken to from the minute he was named pope, taking advantage of his newness when there is so much scrutiny of every single moment of his public life.
Who do you trust? As human beings we process and decide in the very first few seconds of meeting each other whether we like and trust whom we have met. Those first impressions are incredibly powerful for us, especially if we are meeting a new leader who can make, in some cases, life-changing decisions. Pope Francis apparently understands this dynamic.
We all pay attention to change. Change and the recognition of something new that can help or hurt us is a primal human reaction. The new pope looks like he understands this focus we have and is playing to that focus. Some leaders actually manufacture change and designate a “new” direction in order to take advantage of our interest in something new. Remember President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and JFK’s “New Frontier.”
And, by the way, Pope Francis is indeed the first pontiff from the New World.
Unified message and playing to your strength. A time of crisis is also an opportunity for leveraging new perception and growing business because of a sharp focus on what a new leader does … how he/she handles a crisis. Churches and all entities always do better when there is reasonable transparency and correction after a crisis is reveals as opposed to cover-ups.
Pope Francis is playing to the universal positive perception of what a church can and should do for its congregation, it primary audience, during good times or during a time of crisis. The new pontiff is playing to the church’s strength, which is to be charitable, supportive and forgiving. He is cutting through the clutter of all the negative perceptions and realities and zeroing in on who he is and has been and how he wants his church to be known.
Pope Francis is very effectively setting an example of leadership, credibility and action. He is choosing a branding position of strength, an unquestionable position that will mitigate problems and set a tone for future success. His challenge, and the challenge for managing all successful organizations, is the difficulty of consistency. Leaders must stick to their initial mission statements and keep doing what they promised to do or risk being seen as hypocritical which plunges their organizations into even worse positions. Let’s all hope the Pope keeps his promises and sets examples for all kinds of leaders who struggle with resurrecting their respective brands in their respective businesses, whether they are fishing for the souls of men or trying to improve sales and providing redemption for stockholders.