Holy Smoke and PR Priests: The Papal Announcement as a Case Study in Communications Integration

Guest article! Today’s announcement of the selection of a new pope inspired contributor Kayle Hatt to examine the Vatican’s rapid response communications, with an eye toward what advocacates and political communicators can learn. See also his earlier article on Pope Benedict’s arrival on Twitter.

Holy Smoke and PR Priests: The Papal Announcement as a Case Study in Communications Integration

By Kayle Hatt

This afternoon, the Cardinals of the Catholic Church elected a new leader. As a non-Catholic, that sentence was awkward for me to write, and unless you’re Catholic, it might be easy to brush past this event altogether. However, there is one thing politicos can learn from the papal announcement: communications integration.

Integrated Marking Communications is a very technical Comms term, but basically the idea of communications integration is that you have many different communications channels sending a message that is seamless in style and core content. It’s important in politics (think about the integration among campaign ads, speeches, mailouts and phone scripts) and advocacy (think about how communications in the media, to supporters and to donors is related), but sometimes it’s hard to integrate in practice.

Here’s how the new pope was announced:

White Smoke

Okay, this one doesn’t have much applicability to politics, however it is often important to think about how you are communicating in person or at live events. The white smoke from the conclave chimney is a tradition, making it an expected form of communication for these type of events. Many of our political or advocacy organizations have similar important traditions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t evolve and become more inclusive of modern technology — for this conclave, the Vatican News service created a web livestream and mobile phone app for people who wanted to see the Chimney.


The Papal twitter account, which I wrote about in my earlier Epolitics.com article, listed the twitter name “sede vacante” from the time that Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down until this conclave. In the first few moments after the smoke appeared that twitter name was changed back to Pontifex, the pope’s Latin title, even before the announcement was made public. Then all nine official papal twitter accounts tweeted “Habemus papam franciscum,” which is Latin for “We have a new Pope — Francis.”


At the same time that the news was going out on twitter, “Habemus papam franciscum” was splashed across the landing page of the official Vatican website.

And was updated with an image shortly afterwards. The website previously showed “sede vacante”.


If you were watching the papal announcement via traditional media, the Vatican had press officers (whom I like to think of as PR Priests) doing television interviews between the time the smoke appeared and the official announcements. From the one I saw on the CBC News in Canada, they appeared to be well briefed and equipped with talking points.

Official Communications

Within minutes of the announcement, the Vatican’s state news service www.News.va started posting information about Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis I’s background, translations of the Latin announcement and details from the conclave. After Pope Francis’ Latin speech, News.va posted translations. Providing background information for reporters (and doing it quickly) is an essential part of any communications strategy … and News.va did it in 5 languages.

And finally, the new pope gave an official speech himself.

All of this happened very rapidly and in a very orderly fashion. Yes, the Catholic Church is a very large organization, but integrated communications doesn’t require a huge amount of resources.

In many ways, the papal announcement is a great parallel for political events in the real world. Officials at the Vatican knew an announcement would be coming but they didn’t know exactly when that would it would happen or what it would be. Preparing for their communications strategy probably involved examining contingencies, arranging responses to a large number of possibilities and making sure the process of broadcasting on so many different channels was prepared. Anticipating an opponent’s platform launch or getting ready for post-debate spin isn’t very different.

Thanks Kayle! Great observations all around — and I think you’re carving out a new niche as a religion reporter. – cpd

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Kayle Hatt
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