On the Catholic Church's World Communications Day this past Sunday, May 24, Pope Benedict XVI went out with a message supporting the use of social media, and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications supported his message with the introduction of Pope2You, a Web portal. The new Web portal features Facebook and iPhone applications, as well as links to the existing YouTube page. With these tools, the Vatican is reaching out to a younger generation that might or might not have interacted with the Catholic Church before.
“Because the focus [of the Pope's World Communications Day message] was on new media, and was addressed particularly to young people, we decided to establish a dedicated Web site, and Pope2You was born out of that,” says Monsignor Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which runs the portal.
The response in the community has been great – with nearly four million visitors since it officially launched on May 21, Tighe says. Demonstrating its ability to adapt to today's technology will allow the Vatican to reach new audiences while bringing centuries' old practices into today's communications currency of social networking.
“I think it was a good move for them from a PR perspective to promote World Communications Day,” says Adam Isserlis, VP and director of digital media for Rubenstein. “[Social media] ties into their idea of community and responsibility and communication between individuals and members of the church."
Jennifer Houston, SVP and global lead of Waggener Edstrom's WE Studio D, thinks the site was “powerful” because it incorporated several social media tactics.
“There isn't just one way the audience is going to interact,” she says. “So the content has to resonate across all those different channels.”
Throughout the US, Catholic Churches and dioceses have been incorporating social media into their outreach. The annual Catholic Media Convention, held May 27 to 29, included panels on social media, featuring representatives from Burson-Marsteller and Jack Dorsey, cofounder of Twitter, says attendee Brian Finnerty, national communications director for Catholic institution Opus Dei.
And Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, says it recently hired someone specifically to look at ways to use social media. It also uses its Web site to communicate with the public and is streaming videos of events.
“I think it's important that the church universal, and at individual dioceses, look for a way to be present to the faithful wherever they happen to be,” he says. “What the Vatican is doing will inspire us and make it easier for us to get backing and support for what we are trying to do.”
It appears that part of the new social media strategy is to be present in places where the public might already be talking about the Catholic Church – even if it isn't always positive. Earlier this year, Facebook users created a campaign to send the Pope virtual condoms after he made a comment saying that condoms increase the HIV/AIDS problem, rather than prevent it.
“You can't control everything that's being said about you,” Finnerty explains. “[But] you can participate in the conversation, and that lends more credibility than a strict top-down model of communications.”
Tighe acknowledges that the original outreach will target those who are already a part of the Catholic Church, with the hope that they will pass on the Pope's teachings and messages to friends.
“Ultimately, religion is a communications business,” says Mark DeMoss, president of The DeMoss Group, which works exclusively in the religious area. But he warns that with the brevity of social media messaging, for example, via 140 characters on Twitter, it might be difficult to convey the deeper spiritual messages of the Catholic Church.
“There is constantly an effort [to be sure that] the language we use, the concepts we use, are accessible to young people,” Tighe says. “Obviously, we can't change the message, but we do have to recognize the culture in which we live.”