Amith Prabhu: Learning Public Relations from the Pope

12 Aug,2013

By Amith Prabhu


I was fortunate to be at the World Youth Day event in Rio de Janiero in July, which also marked the first international outing of a brand new Pope. The original estimation of the gathering was 2 million but with the change of guard in Vatican in March this number swelled up to 3 million. This figure has been disputed but the crux is despite all the odds the city of Rio was able to pull off the event without any major glitch. This column is about the Pope and his public relations outreach.


The run up to the Pope’s visit, his week-long presence in Brazil and his journey back were well covered by world media. Almost every local general interest magazine in Brazil had the Pope on the front cover. Even Time magazine had the Pope on its cover in all but one edition. But Pope Francis’ little acts of genuine warmth and care have become a Public Relations case study. People who were present at the event and those who were watching the proceedings online or on television are still talking of the man of the moment who is a front-runner to become the newsmaker of the year. Here are some PR takeaways from the Pope’s trip to Brazil:


a) Not using the bullet-proof pope mobile on his visit to Brazil to allow him more direct contact with crowds despite the security risks. While this is symbolic, it sends a strong message of being down-to-earth, simple and easy. These are attributes citizens of the world look for in a leader. The Pope gets it perfectly right.

b) Pope Francis, who has said he wants to make concern for the poor a hallmark of his papacy, visited the Manguinhos slum in Rio de Janeiro which is an impoverished neighbourhood laden with crime.  This was not a gimmick but an honest concern from a man who has based his papacy of about 20 weeks focusing on the marginalized.

c) Telling residents of the favela (shanty town) that their leaders must do a better job of helping them is a superb message to locals while being hosted by the government which is in the midst of a storm given the rampant corruption that is plaguing the country.

d) His style changes the storyline. Proof of this is in the way he’d been in the global spotlight for five days by the time Friday night rolled around, and no one had even raised the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals until he did so himself.

e) The Pope plays the dual role of being a spiritual leader and a politician. This second aspect was on display during his visit to the Rio slum, where he said that no “pacification” campaign can succeed without addressing the social conditions that breed misery – an indirect slap at recent crackdowns on violence in the slums by local police. At the same time, Francis didn’t embarrass his hosts. He was gracious with Brazil’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff.

f) Time for media – On the plane en route to Brazil, he stood for an hour to chat with each journalist covering the trip, then spent the rest of the flight talking to his Vatican aides and making notes. And on his return journey he presided over his first ever press conference where he made comments on sensitive topics including gays and atheists.


As a CNN blog put it recently, polls around the world show approval ratings for the Pope that would be the envy of any politician or celebrity, while vast crowds show up in Rome for even his most routine activities.


I keep telling clients and younger professionals that Public Relations is not only about media coverage and some few thousand dollars being given to build some parks and toilets. Public Relations runs deeper. It is little acts that go a long way in doing everything right and not just doing the right things. If business leaders, politicians and celebrities want to make a sincere difference in their outreach to customers, citizens and fans there is a lot they can learn from Pope Francis.


Amith Prabhu is the founder of The PRomise Foundation which organises PRAXIS – the annual summit for PR & Corp Comm professionals in India. During the day he is a full time employee at a leading Public Relations firm in their Chicago office. He spent the first eight years of his post graduation career in India and is in the US for two years of which he has completed 18 months. Views expressed here are the author’s own and don’t represent those of his past, present, future employer or of MxMIndia. You can connect with him on Twitter @amithpr


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2 responses to “Amith Prabhu: Learning Public Relations from the Pope”

  1. Himanshu Agarwal says:

    Thanks Amith,

    A really good piece.

  2. Richard Rego says:

    Amith, that’s a good piece of writing and reflection on Pope Francis’ PR in practice. You have highlighted his simple and effective ways to connect with people. I believe these qualities in any organisation, leader, or person go a long way in creating good will among people. That is, according to me- is the success manthra of Pope Francis.
    Thank you and Congratulations to you.