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South Texas Living

The Polished Edge: The pope spreads the Word on Twitter

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January 2, 2013 | 2,752 views | Post a comment

By Marsha Friedman

His handle is @Pontifex and 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI can tweet in eight different languages on his brand new Twitter account.

On Dec. 12, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church tentatively typed out his first tweet on an iPad. It read, “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

(For those of you counting, that’s the maximum 140 characters allowed per tweet. Once His Holiness gets the hang of things, he’ll want to shorten them up a bit so they’ll be easier for his followers to re-tweet.)

And followers he has -- more than 1.8 million and counting. The pope is already a hit in the Twitter-verse, which makes one wonder why he didn’t sign up a long time ago. And that thought leads to a more important question: How many small business owners, entrepreneurs, professionals, and authors are not yet using this marvelous social networking platform?

It’s time to take a lesson from the Vatican -- whether or not you’re Catholic.

The pontiff took to Twitter for the same reasons anyone with something to market should:

•He needs to generate leads. “Part of the pope’s job description is to spread the Word,” Greg Burke, senior communications advisor for the Vatican, has said. “Twitter is turning out to be a very effective way of doing this.” Like business owners, the Catholic Church must generate leads to bring in new “customers.”

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, while there are 66.3 million Catholics in the United States, the growth rate has slowed in past years, and only 24 percent of those Catholics attend Mass every week.

The church also has a problem with declining numbers of U.S. priests. The shortage has left nearly 3,400 parishes without a resident pastor. And book and product sales? Word of mouth to the world’s more than 1.2 billion Catholics can only help.

•He wants to keep the customers he has. It’s not just about growing his clientele; the pope wants to keep his existing church members coming back. Interacting with them regularly through the give-and-take of a platform like Twitter helps him create a more personal relationship with them. (On his first day of tweeting, the pope responded to three questions posed by followers using his #askpontifex hashtag.) It will also keep him in front of his target audience if he posts tweets regularly, responds to followers, and occasionally re-tweets their messages.

•He has an important message to share. The pontiff had thousands of followers even before his first tweet! Why? Because many people were already interested in his message, and they expect his posts will have value for them. So far, they apparently have. The third and final question from followers that he answered on his first day tweeting was, “Any suggestions on how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families, and the world?” His response: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you.” It had been re-tweeted nearly 20,000 times by Dec. 14. The pope has a message he wants the world to hear. That’s a good sign he’ll be successful on social media.

I find it fascinating, but not surprising, that Pope Benedict XVI is embracing social media. While the Catholic Church is a centuries-old institution steeped in tradition, it recognizes the need to be where its audience is if it hopes to remain visible and relevant in their lives.

For anyone in business, or anyone marketing anything, that’s not only true for you, too, it’s essential.

Marsha Friedman is a 22-year veteran of the public relations industry. She is the CEO of EMSI Public Relations.

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