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The Pope is on Twitter. But there's more to the story...

I have a feature up at Religion News Service on the broader communications overhaul going on at the Vatican -- a reform effort that was given impetus by the series of gaffes and PR missteps in this pontificate, and the recent "Vatileaks" case:

So how is the overhaul going now that things are settling down?It's a work in progress, said Greg Burke, the Fox News reporter who the Vatican hired last summer in an unusually high-profile move. I'm just aiming for baby steps at this point, trying to get things moving in the right direction. And I think they are.Vatican officials say Burkes hiring he is a member of the influential and media-savvy Opus Dei order and he works in the office of the secretary of state, the Vaticans West Wing is one of the biggest of the baby steps. It has been followed by a number of other actions designed to make the Holy Sees communications a priority rather than an afterthought.For example, the Vatican has started using mock press conferences to prepare for tough questions from the media, and made some of its younger, mid-level officials more available to journalists. Even though they may deliver only background briefings, these officials tend to relate to reporters better than high-ranking cardinals for whom the media is a necessary evil and fax machines a novelty. (Thirty-something curial officials like to joke that the Vaticans motto should be Yesterdays technology tomorrow.)

Now, if they can just get the press office to stay open past 3 pm Rome time, they'll be cookin' with gas.Yes, it's nice that the Holy Father is on Twitter. Hey, half a million "followers" and he hasn't even sent a tweet yet. Not too shabby. But the other, broader media effort is important. Changes in structure are one thing, changing the culture is another. There's no better communications strategy than having a good product to sell, and being open and accountable.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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" Not too shabby."David, you might be aware that a half million followers is an easy accomplishment for a worldwide propaganda machine. It is like the WWYD which is almost totally without substance as it is a contrived event set up by offering free trips to youth in every parish. So the pope will get the numbers. We will see about substance. Will be interesting to see the thirty somethings speaking for the Vatican. Hopefully some of them will break through the Opus Dei mold. The fact that the stodgy cardinals will defer to those in touch with the pulse of Catholics is hopeful. When Chaput and Dolan complain it will mean progress. Twitter will be a challenge for the pope. How many of the comments will be hastily denied and declared that the twitter did this without papal approval?

I think the pope should have a vlog (video blog), but I would recommend he stick to nonreligious topics (like cats, for example) to humanize himself. Every pontifical congregation or council or any other Vatican organization of any importance should have 24/7 live chat so that if you had, say, a Bible question, you could go chat with someone from The Pontifical Biblical Commission. Live chat has made me feel much more positively toward Time Warner Cable of Manhattan, and I think it could work for the Vatican, too. I admit that I do not follow Twitter, but I will certainly look forward to reading something like The Complete Tweets of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI some time down the road. Is it true that dotCommonweal is going to have a contest for the best (imagined) papal tweets of the past 2000 years?

So, is the Pope really going to tweet or will it be the Fox news guy? Celebrities, I understand have "people" who handle their twitter posts. Do you think thie will be the model that the Vatican folks will follow?

One of my teenagers is a fan of a boy band, and spends way too many hours reading tweets from its members - as Holloway notes, probably actually written and sent by their "people". Based on what I'm told of the content of these tweets, a good number of them seem to consist of contrived disputes between the various members of the band, and between band members and members of other musical acts. Perhaps this will be the Holy Father's model for Twitter, and we can look forward to him dissing the Russian Patriarch, the Dalai Lama, President Obama and Beyonce.

David G. -- Only at the very end of your interesting RNS article comes what some might consider an important question in developing a communication strategy: "What's the message we're going to be sending?", from Greg Burke. The gaffes you mention were more due to lack of brain-tongue connectivity than to deficiencies in modern communication systems technology and operation. The simplest test case that comes to mind is the soon-to-be-historic message of the very first tweet from the Pontifex a week from today, followed before long by a collection of his first ten. Fair or not, reactions will occur from intended recipients and others. A richly developed vision of the Pope on Twitter is offered by the USCCB Director of Media Relations Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who foresees the humanizing that David N. recommends, although extending beyond cats even to matters of the soul. She identifies examples of profound short statements of less than 140 characters like "God loves you". She sees a possibility that the Pope's web leadership will induce bishops and others to follow in tweeting with the hoi polloi, becoming more personal and abandoning nuance, as the medium demands. (This appears to be a personal blog post rather than a USCCB position.)

The Pope will allow questions, and, hopefully, he'll answer at least some of them. (That to me is the most revolutionary aspect of this initiative.) But will he answer in any depth? 140 chars don't go very far.I'm hoping the whole project will be an education for him about what the faithful really thing. For instance, if people often ask, "Why doesn't the Church allow married priests?', hopefully he'll see that he needs to give more convincing reasons than the ones he currently offers -- or allow married priests.I suspect that there will be many questions that Rome has forbidden us to ask, and there will be many that will implicitly criticize the Church. Some will be ugly. It will be very interesting to see whether or not the Pope will be told of those questions (somehow I rather doubt it -- at least at the beginning). I wonder whether or not he'll be surprised by them. Good as his intentions no doubt are, sometimes I think he doesn't have a clue as to what the world of ordinary people is like. Or will the project end up just another bulletin board with trite pious thoughts written by the flunkies who actually read the comments?

Poteritne minurire Latine? I don't know that many of his followers would follow that. His tweets will have to be sent out in several modern languages. Then what happens if he uses up his 140 characters in an Italian tweet to say something that requires several more in English? "and that is why the Church teaches that all forms of artificial birth control are f"But probably these exercises will come to be seen as a sort of lighthearted magisterium, making an interesting point while showing the Pope's fun and with-it side. It will be a revelation.

John Prior - that's very funny :-)

I'm not into Twittering, and this is just one more reason why.

David G: you are making a big leap of faith that this is "a story" to begin with.Does anyone REALLY believe that B16 will actually tweet anything by himself? Really?

"Does anyone REALLY believe that B16 will actually tweet anything by himself? Really?" I kind of doubt it. Most world leaders have aides who do it for them, though I suspect B16 will sign off on them. Celebs and others who tweet on their own as often as not get into trouble. Pontiffs can't take that risk.But I'm not sure I understand your question -- my story was not about the pope tweeting, and in fact took an entirely different tack.

I watched a clip of Pope Benedict greeting the President of the Federal Republic of Germany on 6 December. The Pope appeared very frail. When he walked even very short distances, he was noticeably tentative. It is known that he normally uses a cane in the apartment. Why the reluctance, with a few exceptions, to do so in public? And how soon till a wheel chair? I found his restricted mobility quite shocking.

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