Charismatic and popular, a figure of openness and simplicity, Pope Francis has known how to spread his influence far beyond what might be considered the head of the Catholic Church’s constituency by speaking a language that believers and non-believers alike can relate to – no mean feat in an age where politicians and other public figures struggle to convince even their own supporters. With the fourth anniversary of start of his papacy taking place on March 13th, Leaders League profiles a communications genius.
While the majority of politicians struggle to unite their base, Pope Francis has seen his audience grow well beyond a pope’s traditional public. While their message at best goes unheard and at worst lacks credibility, his convinces the majority of people. Could it be that Pope Francis is a better communicator than our professional public figures? Judging by his popularity level, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And four years on from his election it’s difficult to explain away the phenomenon as simply the result of a contrasting approach to that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, whose style was as aloof and austere as his successor’s is charismatic and sympathetic. For many, the reasons for the popularity of the Holy Father lie elsewhere. They are to be found first in the strength of a personality that goes against the grain of media outcry and political posturing; and second in the weaknesses of an era where such qualities as his are rare.
A deficient society
Ours is an era more receptive than ever to a discourse founded on values since these very values have virtually disappeared from the public sphere, where politicians supposedly embodying such values merely trumpet them on the campaign trail. What has permitted the rise of a deficient society and paved the way for someone such as Pope Francis who “speaks not only of values, but of universal values,” as Vincent Leclabart, founder of advertising agency Australie stresses. According to Mr. Leclabart this quality is an essential asset that makes his message “accessible to all.” And how much easier it is to get through to people when your message is open and direct – so different from the delivery we are used to hearing. Able to appeal to listeners who are sick of the same old sound-bites and the posturing common in communication, Pope Francis has also managed to shake up the internal workings of the church. “The Pope is a frank speaker and he uses this trait to change the dusty conventions of his institution while at the same time respecting the fundamental tenets of the Catholic Church and its position on issues such as assisted reproduction and gay marriage etc,” explains Mr. Leclabart. The result: he offers a consistency of message and an openness of approach, and this is the winning formula for reaching out to a new audience without alienating his core following.
A strategy of rupture
Another key element in the Pope’s popularity: His follow-through. This is an asset as noticeable in the Pontiff as it is absent in others. For Denis Gancel, president of the W&cie agency, the effect of the contrast is here again decisive. “His capacity to influence comes from that fact that he backs up his words with actions,” he explains, “his actions are in sync with his words.” Not content to speak out about poverty, he elected quit the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace for the more modest Saint Martha’s House. He has not only decried the lavish lifestyles of certain members of the religious elite, but created a commission to bring to an end this way of living, a break with tradition which marked the spirits from day one of his pontificat when, barely elected, he addressed the throng in St Peter’s Square and called upon each one to pray in silence. “In a dissonant society, one that’s cacophonous even he engenders silence, and therefore, listening,” points out Mr Gancel, “listening to God for believers, listening to others for everyone.” Added to this is physical charm, an essential ingredient in the construction of his image as in delivery of his message, estimates Arnaud Dupui-Castérès, a specialist in political communication and president of communications consultancy Vae Solis. “The fact that he is smiling, open and friendly makes it more likely that the listener will be receptive to what he has to say,” stresses Mr. Dupui-Castérès. “He manages to bring a simplicity to a role that is absolutely not simple.” Yet another rarity that is just what is these times call for, “allowing him to reach people who would not have been historically or naturally favorable.”
A keen sense of leadership and communication
And above all he dares to displease. Because the Pope is not satisfied with seducing, he attacks too. He does not hesitate to denounce, within his own institution, scandals and dysfunction laying out a vision that goes far beyond that of his pontificat. This make’s Pope Francis, according to Mr. Gancel, an authentic model of governance as well as a good communicator. “The fact that he backs up his words with actions, has his feet on the ground and has a long-term vision, mark Pope Francis out as a great leader,”he adds. All the more so as he has known how to make the most of his talents with proven efficiency. “He has built an image of openness on issues where there is a broad consensus – help for migrants, the fight against poverty – which speak to all of us, and allow him to be heard by all,” says Mr Dupui-Castérès “and that’s what good communication is, the art of spreading your power to influence.”
Article by Caroline Castets
Translated from French by Simon McGeady
Photo: By Alfredo Borba - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
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