Public relations, public affairs & crisis

Serafin Blog

It’s 1976 all over again in governor’s race

This week for Crain’s Chicago Business, Thom offered some historical perspective on the upcoming Gubernatorial Race. Will history repeat itself? Can the Illinois Democratic Party sustain so many potent and clout-heavy challengers? Click here to find out what Thom had to say.

Update (7/5): The piece ran in our state capital’s newspaper, The Springfield Journal-Register,  too!

The selection of Pope Francis I is just good PR

Pope Francis I was selected this week to lead the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis I was selected this week to lead the Catholic Church.

Sometimes people are suspicious of “good PR.” Cynicism can cloud our understanding of reality, and we’re left thinking some situations—some stories—are just too good to be true.

But the truth is good feelings don’t have to be manufactured. Altruism lives! And sometimes “good PR” just happens naturally and for all the right reasons.

To follow up on last week’s thoughts about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the selection just the other day of Pope Francis I frosts the cake of a thoughtful, well executed strategic transition that is making for some great PR!

As I mentioned last week, the truncated timetable for Conclave worked to the advantage of the Catholic Church because it reduced the risk of news-fatigue—that the story would grow stale and Catholics and non-Catholics would lose interest, even become annoyed with having to hear—yet again—about the arduous process of selecting a new Pope, in addition to recounting the horrors of the scandals affecting the church.

Instead, the process was swift and efficient—a clear indication the Church’s leadership is getting the message, and finding new and better ways of doing things. Then, to reinforce that message, the Cardinals did something they’ve never before by selecting a Jesuit, a sect of the Catholic tradition devoted to—among other things—education, charity and a life of non-extravagance, a particularly intriguing element given the prestige and opulence often associated with the Papacy.

Already we’ve heard all the stories about Pope Francis I taking the bus and being critical of material pursuits among his brethren. In Argentina he his referred to as the Slum Pope for spending a great deal of time with the poorest citizens, in “misery villages” throughout the capital.

How can you not like this guy?

But just as important is Pope Francis’s country of origin, Argentina. For the first time ever, we have a Pope from the western hemisphere, a more than fitting sign given the evolving demographics and geography of Catholicism (nearly 28% of Catholics come from South America alone).

I’m fond of telling people that my true business is human relations. We build coalitions, we make introductions, and we make sure our clients have a seat “at the table.” The selection of Pope Francis I is not only a nod to the growing influence of South American Catholics, it’s also a first-time invitation to serve among Catholicism’s highest ranks.

When everyone wins, you have a perfect recipe for “good PR.” There’s no need to cook the language or trumpet the data, the story just is.

While the church still faces a tough road to climb, their selection of Pope Francis I is a step in the right direction, an opportunity to show the world that a fresh new era of Catholicism is set to dawn.

Pope’s resignation a test in stakeholder management


Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Feb. 11 and concluded his papacy on Feb. 2

The image of Pope Benedict XVI making his final departure from the Vatican aboard a helicopter will live forever as the iconic moment of what is arguably one of the leading Roman Catholic news stories of the last century.

This Pope, unlike the last 71 popes before him, resigned. He announced his resignation on February 11, a mere 17 days before his papacy was set to conclude.

In our profession, we help people and organizations build relationships with their constituencies by mapping strategies for implementing and communicating—among many other things—major changes. There’s very few constituencies (more than one billion) larger than the Roman Catholic Church, and—for them—there’s probably no bigger change than the transition from one Pope to another.

So, from a strategic standpoint, how was that transitioned handled?

In my opinion, it was handled masterfully. The way Pope Benedict gracefully accepted the degree to which his ailing health compromised his ability to perform his job is a refreshing precedent for an organization oft-scrutinized for being stuck in ‘the’ old ways of doing things.

Also, condensing the lead-time to only 17 days saves the Church from a long, drawn-out and fatiguing process while simultaneously prompting a swift selection process. (This preparation should not go unnoticed)

Pope Benedict did exactly what we advise our clients to do during times of transition; he got out in front of the issue, and arrived at a solution that everyone will benefit from.

History teaches us that practically all Popes have held onto their papacy until death—sometimes through months, even years of failing health. During these unfortunate times, health issues will force surrogates in the Vatican to assume authority, an alienating concession of power that can harm the Vatican’s prominence and inspiration.

By preempting this possibility, Pope Benedict has gifted future Popes with the realization that it’s okay to be human, and ultimately, it’s for the betterment of the Church to have a strong and vigorous spiritual leader in the Vatican—a wonderful gift of humility for the Church.

This has also allowed him a non-voting voice in his successor—a shortlist he has most undoubtedly gotten close to in his near-eight years of service.

As will always be the case, gossip and rumors will suggest the Pope steps down amid pressure from scandals, but the official reasoning for his resignation belies this logic, and has positioned Pope Benedict to initiate beneficial change, even from beyond his distant post.

An historic transition of moral authority, not seen for more than 600 years in the Roman Catholic Church, strategically handled with dignity and humility.


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