GREG BURKE – A VATICAN ADVISOR FOR MEDIA
A PAPAL MAN FOR ‘PUBLIC RELATIONS’
In the beginning he said ‘no’, later ‘maybe’ in order to accept an offer to work for the Pope finally. He was frightened but the fact that he was considered in it, he treated as a great distinction. Who is the man who says that he gives the Pope a ball, while he scores a goal?
Last year during a talk with Fr. Federico Lombardi a director of the Press Office of the Holy See, I touched on the issue of alleged mistakes of Vatican in contacts with media in the recent years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Fr. Lombardi told me then about real problems in communication of some decisions of the Pope and the Curia, like the one about abolition of excommunication bishops Lefebvrists about which the Press Office was not informed earlier. Next he added: - Our work can always be improved. As an example, I will say that in the Secretariat of State a new person of an advisor for media appeared – it is an American journalist Greg Burke. It is very important that there would be a connection between institutions of management where decisions are made and documents are prepared, and the Press Office and other Vatican media institutions. Now, thanks to Burke I know more what is happening in the Secretariat of State, and I also have a man who knows American media very well.
AN ADVENTURE AND DISTINCTION
Who is this new and important person in Vatican? Gregory Joseph (although everybody calls him simply Greg) Burke is American, one of six children of a pediatric doctor from St. Louis in the state of Missouri. He attended a Jesuit secondary school in his home town. Next he left for New York where he studied literature and later journalism at the famous Columbia University. He started his journalistic career from a small journal edited in Port Chester (New York), but in a short time he became a collaborator of prestigious American medias such as ‘United Press International’ from Chicago. In 1988 he moved to Rome where he wrote for ‘National Catholic Register’ and ‘Time Magazine’. In 2001 he became a correspondent from Rome of one of the most known American TV stations – Fox News (for Fox News Greg dealt with not only issues concerning Vatican, but also Italy, Europe and the Near East).
For Burke, a fervent Catholic, work in Rome of popes was not only a professional adventure but also a great distinction. As a young man, he joined Opus Dei, becoming a numerary, that is, a member living in celibacy and belonging to the Work founded by St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguera ( a famous numerary of Opus Dei is the former director of the Vatican Press Office and a close collaborator of John Paul II – dr. Joaquin Navarro Valls). When in the aftermath of a series of scandals, either the real or alleged ones, the atmosphere around Vatican became very difficult and Benedict XVI became the aim of constant attacks, in the Secretariat of State there were discussions on how to improve contacts with media and ‘public relations’ – it was decided that an advisor for mass media should be employed. Burke was elected, who was given one day to make a decision. As he said to me once, in the beginning he said ‘no’, later ‘maybe’, maybe’ in order to accept an offer to work for the Pope finally. He was frightened but the fact that he was considered in it, he treated as a great distinction. This difficult and responsible task was offered to Burke not because he was a member of Opus Dei, but because he was a brilliant journalist, with professional internship of over twenty years and a good knowledge of media, especially the American ones.
THIS MAN CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Today the role of an advisor is very important – he must deal with passing information about the Holy See, elaborate media strategies and coordinate the work of Vatican media. His great experience helps him in it. Besides, he says: - Generally I know what journalists look for, especially those from television, because I come from this environment myself.
The appearance of Burke in the Secretariat of State allowed for a better ‘flow’ of information to media, but the ‘media breakthrough’ in Vatican is mainly connected with the election of pope Francis, because Jorge Bergoglio is a man who is featured by great communication skill. Burke thinks that the media success of Francis is a result of not only his abilities of communication, but, first of all, the very message of the Pope who ‘brought back the Church the image of Mother ready to accept everyone, regardless of how far somebody has gone away from Her’. Besides that, what matters is his ‘authenticity and spontaneity’, thanks to which papal gestures are an ideal way of communicating. As an example, we can use a photo from a Vatican canteen which got onto the first page of ‘New York Times’, or the one before a confessional in the Basilica of St. Peter. Greg thinks, half-jokingly, half-seriously that some photos of the Pope are so eloquent that they should be shown with the warning: ‘Danger! This man can change your life’. Shortly speaking – media ‘successes’ of Francis are the merit of the very Pope, because, as Greg says: - I am only one of those who pass him a ball and he scores goals.
A RAPID GROWTH
An important element of the work of an advisor are social portals – Burke belongs to a group of people who deal with the famous papal account on Twitter - @Pontifex. This account, in eight languages in the beginning, was open during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. During one month a number of followers of papal entries reached 2 million. On 17 January 2013 the ninth account in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church was opened. When the pontificate of Benedict XVI was finishing, there had already been 3 million followers. Pope Francis sent his first tweet on 17 March 2013. – 4 days after the election. Since that moment a rapid growth of number of followers of the papal tweety has been registered – on 26 October 2013 there had already been over 10 million of them.
According to the analysis carried out by ‘The #Twiplomacy’, the most influential man on Twitter is the Pope – indeed Barack Obama has more followers but papal tweeties are much more often sent by their receivers. On 11 August, being in Greg’s office, we controlled data concerning Francis’ followers, and they are really impressing: 6.4 mln in Spanish, 4.32 mln in English, 1.85 mln in Italian, 1.12 mln in Portugese, 290 thousand in Latin, 249 thousand in Polish, 205 thousand in German, 144 thousand in Arabian. In total nearly 15 million! However, we were surprised by the number of people who follow papal reflections in Latin, in the ‘dead’ language, but still willingly used.
Twitter seems to be a mean of communication which meets the current Pope’s requirements very well – Francis is concise, to which he also encourages other priests (short homilies!), he likes synthesizing his speeches – he often leaves his believers with mediation of his reflections, like the famous ‘three words’. And Twitter is characterized just by this: brevity, precision, short and understandable opinions. Certainly, the Pope is assisted by a group of collaborators to which Burke belongs, but the author of the account@Pontifex is just the Pope, because the definite majority of entries come directly from his texts. The Pope often uses Twitter – at the weekend on 9 – 10 August he sent even 9 tweeties concerning Iraq – which proves that he approves of the role of social websites in today’s world.
After over two years of work on the post of the Vatican advisor for media, Greg Burke, who works in a close cooperation with Fr. Lombardi, seems to be glad with his achieved results. What was especially important was a good media service of the great event which was the last conclave attended by thousands of journalists from all over the world – the last time when so many employees of media were seen in Vatican was during the funeral of John Paul II. Certainly, his work has not been finished yet, but Burke – a typical American optimist – is sure that everything is on a good way. – we are in the phase of ‘work in progress’ – he repeats it to me, implying that we are still going to face big changes in the system of Vatican media.