10/30/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

5 PR Lessons Conservative Catholic Cardinals Can Learn From Pope Francis


My mom used to say, "The smartest person in the room is the one who isn't talking, but who is listening and observing everyone else." Those words pretty much encapsulate the dynamic that the public witnessed between Catholic cardinals, bishops and Pope Francis during the Synod of Bishops.

Francis has proven himself to be quite savvy when it comes to projecting his public image and using it to push the Catholic Church in the direction he feels will have the greatest mass appeal. If the conservative leadership of the Church wants to gain any traction before the next big meeting in 2015, they need to look closely at the Pope's PR playbook and borrow a page.

1. The Pope speaks media not theology. Pope Francis stays away from Church speak. No matter what business you are in, no one wants to listen to company jargon or get into the weeds about their rules and policies. Remember, while cardinals and bishop were talking about "conversion" and debating "Church doctrine" and the implications of the word "welcome," Pope Francis was using language about the care and need of the individual, reinforcing the image of the shepherd tending his flock in a very real way.

Additionally, Francis is a master of the soundbite. The Pope is not only able to delight the secular media, he has found a fan base in the masses with phrases like: Who Am I to Judge? Don't be airport Bishops. A Church obsessed with "small-minded rules." Brief, pithy responses like the aforementioned, both amplify and breathe life into messaging and will be remembered long after they are spoken.

2. Relatable. Most people have flipped through a copy of Us Weekly and seen the section entitled "Celebrities, they're just like us," showcasing some of Hollywood's biggest names doing the most mundane chores. The photos are supposed to make the reader feel as if she and the celebrity really aren't all that different. This is the relatability factor and Pope Francis has it in spades... He kicked off his papacy by paying his own hotel bill, choosing modest accommodations over those of the Papal Palace; and joining the trend of taking selfies with his well-wishers and fans. He skipped the traditional red Prada slippers for something more practical and modest. The Pope clearly understands that when people are struggling, a leader must mirror their struggle to show that he is like them and that he truly understands. His actions echo his words and he has gained the trust and respect of people beyond the faithful because of it.

3. Don't be combative. When you are going into battle, you don't show your opponent the chinks in your armor. Word choice, tone, humor all make a difference when you are talking to the press and making public statements. Being reactionary or accusatory never moves the ball down the court in a meeting or with the media; instead, that becomes the story. Remember, what was supposed to have been a closed door, no media allowed meeting, turned into a three ring circus where cardinals and bishops alike flocked to the press to get in front of a message -- that hadn't even been crafted and finalized -- like spin doctors from Capitol Hill. This was a missed opportunity for conservatives. Instead of giving specifics about the discussions or countering what this cardinal or that bishop said, the conservative side would have been better served by ignoring various remarks and could have put up a uniformed front with a simple,"These are just discussions and we look forward to working to ensure that all of God's flock is tended to." By addressing remarks of another, there is a risk of giving credibility and momentum to them. At the end of the synod, Pope Francis never singled out a cardinal or bishop for his remarks to the media, but instead reaffirmed his commitment to finding solutions to the "challenges that families must confront."

4. If you don't say it, the media cannot quote you. The only one who wasn't talking during the synod was the Pope. Sure there were reports of him scribbling notes on a pad of paper, but what those notes said are between him and his pen. When Francis did speak at the close of the synod, it was a message of unity about a "journey together" and "solidarity." It was well thought-out. Because Francis waited for the right moment to make his thoughts known, he was able to control the message he wanted reporters to write about, and he was able to stay above the fray of the verbal jousting of his bishops and cardinals.

5. Don't be afraid to make a mess. At World Youth Day 2013 in Rio, Pope Francis told attendees he wanted to make a mess. This is a very trendy attitude and might bring to mind Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's comment, "Break things." The Pope is not afraid to shake things up and the media loves this aspect about him. The Catholic Church is based on tradition, but the Pope isn't afraid to break from it. If you recall, when Francis was named and introduced to the world as Pope, he refused to stand on the customary platform above the other archbishops, and instead of the traditional, elegant, and ornate vestments, he opted for the simple white robes he is so often pictured in. Right out of the gate, Francis has shunned what is expected. His actions are a calculated authenticity that have people talking, and at the end of the day, that is the point of positive media attention.