The PR Guru Behind the Pope Who Is Charming the World

By Katie Engelhart | Nov 21 2013


Greg Burke, the Pope's PR chief, speaking at the World Communications Day Lecture and Mass (photo via Catholic Church England and Wales)

On Wednesday, Pope Francis interrupted his general audience in St Peter’s Square to kiss and bless a severely disfigured man. The subsequent photos of his eyes clenched tightly in prayer and his hands around the ailing man’s face have gone viral. “Many saw echoes of Jesus’s healing of the leper,” reported the Washington Post that day.

Just another fine move from the Pope who keeps on giving. Over the last few months, Pope Francis has nabbed headlines for cold-calling worshippers; launching Vatican sports teams; joking around in a red clown’s nose (and also a firefighter’s helmet); allowing a small child to hug him for the duration of a pilgrims address; and promising to personally baptize the baby of a woman who refused pressure from her partner to have an abortion. Breaking rank with his stiffer-lipped co-workers, Francis has recently suggested that “even the atheists” can be saved and affirmed that he is totally not about to judge gay and lesbian Catholics. Last month, Pope Francis hit 10 million Twitter followers, which placed him just behind Kanye West.

Far and wide, observers speak of a “Francis Effect.”

But every modern-day media darling needs a PR machine, and Pope Francis is no exception. Enter Greg Burke: the 53-year-old Fox News correspondent turned Holy See handler (officially, Senior Communications Adviser to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State) who is quietly changing the way things are done in Vatican City.

To some, Burke may have seemed an unlikely candidate for papal spin-doctor. He’s a layman without PR experience: a cheery newscaster with a penchant for sports analogies. He’s also a member of the controversial Catholic order Opus Dei: a traditionalist and a celibate whose spiritual practice reportedly involves self-flagellation. But after a year and a half on the job, Burke is credited with helping to open up and rejuvenate the Holy See. Of course, Burke would say it’s all Francis’s doing. “I’m going to kick the ball to the Pope,” Burke explained at a recent lecture in London. “I mean, the Pope scores goals, you know? The Pope scores goals for us... The people are just eating this stuff up.”

Flash back a few years to the reign of Pope Benedict XVI: The Catholic Church was awash in scandal. In 2006, Benedict gave his now infamous “Regensburg lecture,” in which he quoted a brutal critique of Islam and irked Muslims the world over. Three years later, he left many aghast with his decision to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. In 2010, the Church was slammed with a new wave of paedophilia allegations, then the Vatican Bank controversy, and then “Vatilieaks.” Added to all that, the people didn’t seem to take much to Pope Benedict. “Benedict doesn’t smile,” a young Italian woman working at a tourist shop by St Peter’s Square told me earlier this year. “He is too much German!”

In June 2012, the Vatican poached Greg Burke when he was still a Rome-based reporter for Fox News. Burke’s job would be to manage “communications issues” and to integrate the Vatican’s many media organs, explained a Vatican official. Burke himself said he was hired “to formulate the message and try to make sure everyone remains on message.”

“I know what journalists are looking for and what they need,” Burke told reporters, “and I know how things will play out in the media.”

Old Vatican hands were optimistic. “Everyone thinks the Vatican is like the NSA or the CIA or something,” David Gibson, a reporter at Religion News Service, and an acquaintance of Burke’s, told me recently. “They think it’s an efficient, well-run place. But basically it’s an Italian village [with] all these little fiefdoms... It’s a very sclerotic, tradition-bound system that barely qualifies as a system. I think someone like Greg can help.”

Burke declined my request for interview, which I faxed (yes, really) to the Holy See last month: “I can’t do the interview, as my job is primarily behind the scenes, and I am trying to keep it that way.”

Greg Burke grew up in St Louis, Missouri as a “meat and potatoes Catholic”: the son of a paediatrician and the middle child of six. Church was within walking distance of Burke’s house and a big part of his upbringing. Entering St. Louis University High School where “the Jesuit influence was very strong,” Burke thought he might be destined for the priesthood; “but I didn’t feel the pull.”

After college, Burke studied at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Later, he covered the police beat for a small newspaper in Port Chester, New York, and then worked as a weather reporter in Chicago. In 1988, he moved to Rome and started writing for National Catholic Register. That led to a stint at TIME magazine, and then a decade of on-air work for Fox. Burke covered the Vatican, but also travelled on assignment throughout Europe and the Middle East.

As a reporter, Burke revealed a shrewd understanding of papal politics, even though he sometimes missed the mark. Shortly before then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was selected as pope (he became Pope Benedict XVI), Burke reasoned that Ratzinger wasn’t even a candidate. “He’s considered too conservative,” Burke explained, noting that Ratzinger was called “the ‘Panzer Cardinal’ because he took so many hits for the pope.”

Today, even though he is one of the Vatican’s most public faces, Burke retains his all-American vibe. He is also active on Twitter:

He's also good with one-liners. “I actually thought I’d leave Fox [to] go work for a football club,” he told an auditorium full of reporters this year. “Ended up in the Vatican. No free tickets to football matches, but really good seats at Christmas and Easter.” [Pause for laughter.]

This jockish humor covers Burke’s deeply-rooted faith. As an 18-year-old, Burke joined the controversial Opus Dei movement and later became an Opus Dei “numerary”: taking a vow of celibacy and singledom and eventually moving into an Opus Dei spiritual center. Opus Dei numeraries traditionally have normal jobs, as Burke did, but give a great chunk of income to the organisation. “Am I being hired because I’m in Opus Dei,” Burke mused, in 2012. “It might come into play.”

Indeed, Opus Dei is said to be gaining influence in the Vatican. Non-Catholics perhaps know it best from Dan Brown’s bestselling Da Vinci Code, in which the movement is depicted as shadowy and nefarious. But the real organization was controversially founded in the 1920s: to push the idea that everyone (not just the priesthood) is called to holiness and can “find God in daily life.” It took several decades for the group to gain approval from the Catholic Church, but Opus Dei now is now an official Catholic “prelature,” and boasts about 90,000 members.

“Opus Dei is great at communications,” Religion News Service’s David Gibson explains, pointing out that Pope John Paul II’s longtime spokesman was also of Opus Dei. “They did a great job during the Da Vinci Code thing.”

Things have been slowly changing since Burke was put at the PR helm. The Holy See Press Office is said to be more open. It now puts out English-language newsletters for journalists and makes spokespeople more available for media comment. Burke dreams of a Vatican with a United Nations-like structure, whose website lists “a spokesperson on every continent with cellphone numbers in case you need an interview and free video footage,” although, as it stands, the Holy See Press Office often closes at 3 PM.

The Vatican has also inched its way towards a digital media strategy. Pope Benedict first began tweeting (@Pontifex) a few months after Burke’s hiring. “He will tweet what he wants to tweet,” Burke said, when the account was launched. But “the Pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad.”

For the Vatican, this modern turn has been a long time coming. As early as 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communication began producing reports on how to use the Internet according to Catholic tradition. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to enter the “digital continent” and launched a Vatican YouTube channel. A year later, at the US bishops’ Fall General Assembly, Bishop Ronald Herzog of Louisiana instructed his colleagues in the use of new media. “He started by proving that New Media is a powerful force, not a fad,” wrote one Cardinal of the presentation. Not long ago, Pope Francis gave his first English-language address in which he proclaimed that “Jesus be known in the world of politics, business, arts, science technology, and social media.”

Under Burke’s tutelage, the Vatican has also gone on the PR offensive: hawking positive news bites instead of waiting to do disaster control. In recent months, Burke has mastered the ability to combine doctrine with Buzzfeed-like spin. Last month, his “ten things to know” about Pope Francis made the popular media rounds. Pope Francis’ picture “should have one of those warning labels,” Burke enthused. “Danger: This man could change your life.”

As with the best of spin-doctors, it’s hard to tell just how much of this is the man himself (the “Francis Effect”) and how much is public relations. “I would not call Pope Francis a great communicator,” Burke has mused. “I consider that slightly pejorative... I’d call him a great Christian.”

@katieengelhart

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