Marketing the Church requires local efforts, sharing Gospel

Matt Palmer | Catholic News Service
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AUSTIN, Texas — McDonald's, Apple, Starbucks and ... the Catholic Church?

In terms of recognizable organization names, the Catholic Church has to rank near the top. But, does it view itself as a brand to be marketed?

That was among several questions raised March 12 at a panel titled "Compassionate Disruption" at the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Commonly known as SXSW, the panel was among the festival's first steps to address faith's place in secular discussions. Bishop Paul Tighe, adjunct secretary for Pontifical Council for Culture, was on the panel with Catholic communicators Helen Osman, Michael Hertl and Christoph Krachten.

The concept of branding has become more prevalent than ever, thanks to the digital age. All around the festival, companies marketed their brands at booths and events.

Activist groups trying to attract young people to affect social change also were present. Faith-specific booths appeared few and far between at the Austin Convention Center, but that might change, thanks to the "Compassionate Disruption" panel. The festival runs through March 19.

Bishop Tighe told the large crowd inside a Hyatt Regency ballroom that the Vatican probably won't play a centralized role in defining a Catholic brand online; the Church's real strength comes from the local level.

"Let's look around the world and the dioceses that do this well," he said. "Starbucks is Starbucks wherever you go. McDonald's is McDonald's wherever you go. Churches are different in the different parts of the world you go and that's the richness of liturgy, the music, the language and everything else.

"I think we have to be very careful about not trying to be overly uniform. But, I do think there's value, at the same time, in saying, 'Let's define standards and language that would work together.'"

Bishop Tighe helped lead a digital revolution at the Vatican in his eight-year tenure as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, which ended in 2015.

He jokingly acknowledged that the Catholic Church is an unconventional place to which to turn to when it comes to communication. Referring to how the results of papal elections are revealed, he said, "Here we are talking about, we're talking about social media, digital media and new technologies, in the Vatican and in the Church, our biggest communications moment is delivered by smoke."

Hertl and Krachten, who work in digital media for the Church in Germany, stressed that quality content, on YouTube and social media channels, is a must for Catholic communicators.

"I think we have to connect with the young generation where they are," Krachten said.

Bishop Tighe told attendees that social media is marred when there is acrimonious discussion. Catholics must be good citizens there and avoid giving in to trolls, a term for social media users who aim to solely deride people online.

"We need to be professional in what we do," he told the crowd, before adding that key performance indicator data shouldn't "block what God is trying to do."

Not out of place

At a festival known for concerts, movie premieres and tech company displays, the Catholic Church certainly stuck out.

"People might be surprised there's a Church presence, but there's so many places where the Church is not invited any longer that it's important to respond positively to invitation," Bishop Tighe told Catholic News Service. "Even if it looks a bit different or not like our usual gatherings."

Bishop Tighe is no stranger to speaking at unconventional festivals. He once spoke in front of 12,000 people at the Burning Man arts festival in Europe.

"Despite all the sophistication, coolness, sarcasm and the irony at an event like this, I think if you speak with authenticity, there's still a possibility of touching people's hearts," he said.

A faith session at SXSW is still a relatively new concept, said the interactive festival's director, Hugh Forrest. Forrest said he likes panels that take attendees out of their comfort zones.

"I think it is an outlier, but I think the outliers here are what makes 'the thing' so interesting," Forrest said. "A faith-based session at a technology event that's focused on start-ups? That's really neat. I love that we have the capacity to host sessions like that which attract people with strong faiths. I hope it attracts people maybe who don't, but are interested in this stuff."

Forrest views the Bishop Tighe appearance as the start of a potentially longer relationship with the Catholic Church. He dreams that one day Pope Francis might Skype with an audience at SXSW.

"This pope and the current Vatican is embracing technology," Forrest said. "It makes sense to connect with this crowd. They are in a sense embracing disruption very significantly. I think the pope has a leadership role few other people have. We like to showcase innovative, creative leaders." 

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