What Can You Learn From Papal Planning?

What Can You Learn From Papal Planning-When planning an event the size and magnitude of a papal visit, someone’s going to criticize some aspect of the communications.  But businesses and organizations can observe this event from a distance and learn lessons in executing an event of any size in the public square.

The City of Philadelphia and its Roman Catholic Archdiocese are accused of poor public relations as the visit of Pope Francis nears.  Criticisms include a lack of one authoritative voice from leadership, poor distribution of messages, and a failure to control the flow of information.  The article, Dear Philly—Your papal public relations needs help,” by Marilyn D’Angelo (@knowitallphilly) on Newsworks, the online home of WHYY news, brought back memories from 17 years ago when media stories and commentaries in St. Louis predicted the visit of Pope John Paul II would cause traffic backups starting in Indianapolis—200 miles away.

D’Angelo is a food reporter and admits her engagement with events is “parties, pop-ups and well-orchestrated events.” Security measures, logistics and other planning for this event will probably far exceed any public event executed in one of the largest cities in the United States.  However, her criticism of the communications can provide insights for businesses and organizations planning a public event.  Here are three fundamental elements of good event communications:

1. Bring Leaders Together

Organizations must invite key leaders and give them a seat at the table when planning an event.  It doesn’t matter if your planning a 5K run through the streets or a papal parade, your organization must engage representatives from local government and the community.  Most times, people from these groups will be helpful and provide sound advice.  Law enforcement and government officials can provide insights based on a great depth of experience.  Community representatives will often share best practices and what to avoid.

2. Communicate The Vision Of The Event

Your organization and the event team must create a vision and it must be shared by everyone involved with the event.  The vision must be clear and concise so it can be easily referenced.  When challenged with a difficult decision, event organizers can refer to the vision to determine the best solution.

3. Communicate How Customers/Participants Will Experience the Event

Information must be distributed frequently to customers and participants of an event.  This requires creating a vision of the experience in the imagination of the customer or participant. Communicators should provide customers/participants with a map and a guide with step-by-step instructions.

When customers/participants know how to navigate the landscape of your event and can visualize their activities, chances are their experience will be positive.  Good information can give customers/participants confidence in the event’s planning.  Clear and reasonable expectations of an event will prevent confusion and disappointment.

Looking Back

Joe Mueller awaits the arrival of John Paul II while serving as a media relations volunteer on Jan. 27, 1999. A mass attended by more than 100,000 people took place at what's now called the Edward Jones Dome.

Joe Mueller awaits the arrival of John Paul II while serving as a media relations volunteer on Jan. 27, 1999. A mass attended by more than 100,000 people took place at what’s now called the Edward Jones Dome.

As a nonprofit communications professional and a Roman Catholic, John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis presented an opportunity to volunteer and assist with media relations during a once-in-a-lifetime event.  My assignment for the papal mass at what’s now called the Edward Jones Dome was assisting a United States Marshal on the floor of the Dome.  Our task was to keep television journalists from all over the world on a raised platform at the back of the venue.  If they didn’t follow my directives, the U.S. Marshal would remove them from the building.

Other security measures included limiting information about the Pope’s movements in the Dome.  Some television reporters asked me to find out if the Pope would be traveling clockwise or counterclockwise around the floor of the Dome in his security vehicle before the mass.  The U.S. Marshal told me the direction wasn’t for public disclosure.  After relaying that information to  the journalists, they expressed their aggravation and used terms, “Nazi-like” and “Gestapo” to describe my efforts and those of the U.S. Marshal.

Many worried about harsh winter weather when the event was scheduled for late January.  Everyone prayed for good weather, especially the cloistered contemplative missionary congregation, the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, commonly called the “Pink Sisters” because of their rose-colored habit.  Temperatures climbed close to 70 degrees during his 30-hour stay.


Communications professionals and event planners can’t rely solely on prayers from the Pink Sisters and others to execute successful events.  However, effective planning, communication and utilization of multiple channels and formats will lead to positive outcomes.

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One response

  1. I had a similar conversation about this with my Event Planner. I didnt know what pink sisters meant till now. Thanks!

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