Public Relations and the Papal Visit

By Carl Apple

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A papal visit to the United States is a major event that would warrant round-the-clock coverage under normal circumstances. But when you add the rock-star status that Pope Francis has gained in the past two and a half years, you end up with one of the biggest media events of the past 20 years. When it was confirmed last year that the Pope would be visiting the United States with the culmination of the World Meeting of Families, a multitude of preparations went into motion for everything from infrastructure needs to security details. That included a call to Catholic public relations professionals from around the country to volunteer their time assisting in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

As a diocesan communications director, I was contacted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) with a request for my bishop to release me to assist during the papal visit. Bishop Walkowiak was happy to let me take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.

The total team consisted of approximately 150 individuals from all over the country, including USCCB personnel, diocesan PR professionals, Catholic newspaper and magazine editors, and current and former broadcasters. I was part of a small advance team in Philadelphia assigned to help staff the media ‘filing center,’ a gigantic hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which was also the location for the World Meeting of Families. The filing centers in each city of the papal visit were the locations of daily press briefings and interviews and also served as media hubs away from the crowds where journalists could have access to the resources they needed. We were later joined by dozens of others who were part of the team from Washington, D.C. and New York. All of us were meant to serve the local archdioceses who had their own staff and outsourced PR and event firms already on the ground.

Because of the tight security demands, media could not access the venues of the papal visit without passing through Secret Service protocols. That means, not only did the 7,700+ media need to possess a photo ID credential through the Secret Service that was handed out weeks in advance, the only access to the venues went exclusively through the filing centers. Media could try to show up at the venue with a media credential, but would not be granted access to the restricted areas closer to Pope Francis.

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Each day, the media would cue up, walk escorted to a security area that resembled a TSA line at the airport, then have their gear screened while they each pass through a separate metal detector. After that, writers, photographers, satellite truck operators and PR pros would load onto buses and drive through the closed streets of Philadelphia. I must tell you that this was perhaps the weirdest part of my experience at the papal visit, riding in a bus motorcade with police motorcycle escort through Philadelphia while crowds of people behind cement barricades stare and point. It must have looked like Aerosmith was on the bus instead of a beat reporter for 6 Action News.

I was assigned to the Atlantic Aviation section of the Philadelphia International Airport, where Pope Francis would be flying in from New York and then departing the country at the end of his trip. Twenty five to 30 media members were placed on predetermined locations on risers that were approximately 50-75 yards from the plane. Everyone had to be present more than three hours before the Pope arrived, so the priority was to keep the media happy at a time when everyone was getting tired and angry (on Saturday, crew-call time was 3 a.m.).  I’m told that this was common at most venues (security!). That morning, we were provided breakfast, snacks, and a tent but the other venues weren’t nearly so fortunate. However, with the USCCB media kit and a website with up-to-date information, questions were at a minimum. The PR staff were mostly on site to escort media to take a break and visit the bathroom, while keeping them on the risers in between.

Pope Francis’ departure included a VIP reception inside a corporate hanger at the airport; it was a long day. Media were fed lunch, then had monitors to watch the Eagle’s game (a priority), but again they were later placed on risers for three long hours before the Pope’s arrival. The key was to do what we could to keep the media content, providing interviews from the crowd of World Meeting of Families organizers, volunteers and benefactors at the reception during the wait.

When Pope Francis arrived at each venue, the wait was worth it. While I expected the faithful like myself to go crazy, I’ve never seen a reaction like it from the media, who are typically reserved and cynical even in the presence of presidents and celebrities. But there was an excited look in their eyes after the appearances, especially when Pope Francis asked the driver of his Fiat to stop so he could bless a boy in the crowd at the airport who had cerebral palsy. Not that all the  coverage of the papal visit was good for the Church, in fact it would be strange if that was the case. But everyone seemed to feel like they were part of something special. And when you work in or with the media in 2015, that’s rare.

Carl Apple is a board member of the WMPRSA and serves as director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids

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