Our recent Academy Opinions survey asked communications professionals to give us their opinion about how successfully Pope Francis communicated during his recent visit to Ireland. We deliberately left the question quite ‘open’ so that people could comment on communications with all of his audiences.
Statistically the results were surprising. In response to the question “Did the Pope communicate well?” 41% said No, only 26% said Yes and 33% said they did not know.
We followed up the question by asking for recommendations on what the Pope could have done better if participants felt that there was room for improvement.
Thank you to everyone who took so much time to give us detailed, thoughtful and insightful feedback. The feedback divided into roughly three areas: PR, Event Management and (the largest) Clerical Abuse. Let me give you some more information about each of these areas.
PR: Respondents said that the Pope appeared disconnected from people, should have spoken some words of Irish and English, should have tried to meet more people.
Most people felt that the Pope should have sought professional guidance, especially the guidance and advice of PR professionals who were Irish-based. The overall impression was that he was ill-prepared in terms of an Irish audience.
Some suggested that he should have given media interviews in advance of his visit.
Event Management: People were not happy with this element at all. Feedback strongly suggested that there were too many events over too short a space of time. Most respondents felt that events should have been centralised to maximise their impact. There were multiple comments as well about the fact that the Phoenix Park looked half-empty on the day of the mass.
Clerical Abuse: This was the element of feedback which attracted most comment which is understandable in light of the high profile that clerical abuse has in Ireland over the last number of years. Here is a flavour of the feedback:
Specifically address the issues around clerical abuse
Address the scandal much earlier
Put wheels in motion to give redress to survivors
A more personal apology
Properly briefed in advance
Visible actions to compliment sentiments
Apologise on behalf of the catholic church
Outline steps to reform church rather than ask for forgiveness
Stated his action plan to combat paedophiles
Take ownership and propose changes
Too much will he/wont he meet the survivors
Address sexual exploitation by priests
Apologise directly and give compensation
Outline steps to reform the church rather than ask for forgiveness
Essentially, communications professionals were clearly indicating that a crisis plan needed to be put in place and the papal visit should have followed well-established crisis PR structures, namely identify the issue (clerical abuse), apologise personally and on behalf of the church, then detail the structures which are being put in place to deal effectively and comprehensively with this issue.
Crisis PR training focuses on identifying the wrong, apologising, putting preventative measures in place and, later, showing how those measures were working effectively to ensure that the situation would never arise again. My overall sense reading the feedback in this section is that there was no feeling of closure or finality after the visit, and this was a missed opportunity.
Let me try to summarise what I believe the survey tells us.
I think that the church, in planning for this event, planned for a repeat of the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul. That visit was a national event. The entire country seemed to be caught-up in a frenzy of religious fervour. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see, hear, participate in some way in Pope John Paul’s Visit.
The 2018 visit was never going to be the same. Too much has happened in the meantime. There is a darker history and deeper knowledge of the wrongs that that were done to children and women, in particular.
No real effort seems to have been made to brief Pope Francis about the current situation in Ireland. He seemed unaware of the deep hurt and anger that people feel. The fact that he seemed to know nothing about the Tuam Babies Scandal – one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the church worldwide – was really hard to credit. Minister Katherine Zappone learned some words of Italian so that she could communicate, unmediated, with the Pope. The Pope did not seem to have any desire to do likewise with the people of Ireland.
The church never got hold of the story and made it their own. It was never a celebration of family. They failed to apply established crisis management techniques to the papal visit. Had they done so, the outcome might have been very different indeed.
This survey was carried out independently by Opinions.ie Market Research