Pontiff’s Poor PR Punch highlighted by traditional and social media coverage
Of the many things I have to thank my parents for, I consider their choice of name for me as near the top of the list. To be accurate, that should be their choice of what not to name me.
I was born the day after Pope John Paul II was ordained. However, unlike thousands of baby boys in Ireland around that time, I escaped being called ‘John Paul’. At the time, the name was so popular that it seemed every small village and town across the country had about half a dozen JP’s that came into the world in the late 1970’s.
This was a function not only of the grip the Catholic Church held on Irish society, but also a reflection of the media coverage that events surrounding the Papacy received. Simply put, the Pope was a ‘big deal’ with broadcast and print media devoting acres of coverage to him. This dedicated coverage was a constant presence in Irish media and, for obvious reasons, reached its zenith at the time of the Pope’s ordination and, subsequently, his visit to Ireland.
How times have changed. A mere 24 hours ago, Pope Benedict II resigned the Papacy. This was a ‘big deal’ and, considering that it has been 600 years since this type of event last occurred, one would be forgiven for calling it a ‘massive deal’. However, analysing both traditional and social media over the last day would belie that assertion.
One of the definitions of a ‘massive deal’ is that it commands a large degree of attention throughout media when it first breaks but then continues to dominate coverage as time goes by. The re-election of Barack Obama can be used as an example with social media and traditional media being dominated by his election on the day and subsequent days. In media parlance, it led successive ‘news cycles’.
The Pope’s resignation has already failed that test. While it is true that it dominated traditional media when it first broke yesterday afternoon – afternoon radio news programmes went on air earlier to cover it, print reporters were called off assignments to cover it for the following day’s editions -, this quickly dissipated. By this morning it had dropped to item three on radio headlines, ‘demoted’ behind the North Korea missile test and Ireland’s call for a European meeting on the horsemeat controversy. In fact, by midday it had dropped to item seven on RTE News’ website. Understandably the morning newspapers devoted much coverage to the announcement but, based on newspapers’ online coverage today, it is doubtful whether it will be the ‘splash’ tomorrow morning.
Social media was even quieter. When the resignation announcement was made, twitter went wild with messages. However, within a matter of hours there was little more comment on it and, aside from passing around Father Ted pictures and the odd joke on the funny #exbenedict hashtag, most people’s twitterfeed had returned to normal. Facebook commentary was even more muted with a quick flurry of queries of how to apply for the job and then nothing more.
My personal, unscientific research was damning. Usually, when a big story breaks, I receive a variety of texts, emails, facebook messages and tweets from friends, family and former work colleagues on the issue. Yesterday evening, I received 16 text messages, 3 direct messages on twitter and one facebook message. Of these, 14 related to Liverpool’s defeat to West Brom, three were about my new twitter picture, two were a conversation with a former work colleague about his new job and one was from my wife asking me to stick on the dinner. Never at any point was the Pope mentioned.
While, of course, my experience is irrelevant and it is obvious that the impact of the Papacy on media and social conversation has decreased in recent years, it is the level of decrease that is staggering. The Papacy will still lead news cycles in the days and weeks ahead but its grip on conversation is so far gone that it should be of concern to the new Pope and his media advisors. If they don’t believe that is the case, they should only look around to see how many babies were called Benedict in 2005.