What does participating as a speaker at the 2014 World Public Relations Forum mean to you?
It’s an exciting opportunity to be among leading professionals in the field, and to bring a bit of the Gospel to the marketplace, which is what I enjoy doing. It’s also great to be speaking about Pope Francis, who is seen as probably the world’s greatest communicator at this moment, and to share some of what I think makes him such a compelling icon.
In your opinion, what are the most important benefits of participating in this Forum?
PR is a craft, and it’s important for craftsmen to share their tools and show each other the fruits of their labours. It’s inspiring and reassuring — and no doubt exhausting, given the collective energy in the room.
What does “Communication with Conscience” mean to you?
As a Catholic who is at the Forum because of my role in putting across the Church’s message, and most recently as a papal biographer, I’m delighted at the title. It’s about integrity — making what you do and say cohere — as well as witness: learning to tell stories that edify and uplift. The word conciencia in Spanish, as in other Latin languages, carries a dual meaning which in English we distinguish using both conscience and awareness. But they’re closely linked: in both cases, it is about learning, being concerned, being connected, being plugged in. A good communicator has to be conscious — of peoples’ hopes and anxieties, of their fears and desires — and learn how to connect with them without exploiting them. That’s where the morality comes in. If my awareness of others’ needs and desires and hopes and fears lead me to connect better with them, that is good communication; but if I am doing so only in order to recruit them or sell them something, that becomes instrumentalization: we reduce peoples’ freedom, not expand it. Pope Francis can be helpful here. He believes in evangelization — witnessing to God’s love in acts of mercy and charity, imitating Christ’s attention to the wounds of humanity — but not in proselytism, which is an attempt to convert people, to make them join your organization. So communication with conscience is about learning to attract people by connecting with them, without ever using them.
In your opinion, what are the most important challenges that communication professionals will have to face in the next years?
How to make messages stick in an increasingly transient, fast-moving, fragmented environment. How to be authoritative in a social media world which is by definition iconoclastic. How to resist the lure of immediate impact in order to keep our eyes on the horizon.
What is the main challenge a communications professional faces when counseling religious leaders?
The main challenge is judging when to speak and when to stay silent. Religious leaders face endless calls to speak up and speak out, but their currency fast loses value if they spread themselves too thinly. In a communications environment dominated by the ethic of autonomy, religious leaders are soon framed as authoritarians seeking to impose. So it’s about learning how to speak in ways that challenge that frame. The best religious leaders are seen as wise and impartial people who speak out of a desire for the common good; the worst are seen as sermonising bores who care only about boosting their numbers. It’s the job of their advisers to keep them in the first category.
How was the experience, in terms of communication and journalism, of writing a book about the Pope Francisco?
The book took me back to Argentina, to a country and a history I once knew well, and so re-eonnected me in a thousand ways. The journalistic challenge was how to capture the depth and complexity of the man and the big theological issues while keeping him, and the book, accessible to the general reader. I had a natural interest in him as a communicator, and I think The Great Reformer captures what makes him so great. So I like to think lots of people — not just Catholics or religious people — can learn a lot from it. The book is published in the US in November by Henry Holt, in the UK and Australia in December by Allen & Unwin, and next year in Spanish by Ediciones B.