Pope Benedict XVI'S visit last month marked only the fourth time a sitting pope has made a trip to New York. Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, had to make sense of the hysteria generated by the unique event.
"The visit blew all [the] usual ways of working right out of the water," says Zwilling, who is plenty busy under normal circumstances. "We had a massive job of setting up for coverage of each of [his] stops."
Besides being communications director, Zwilling is also GM of The Catholic Channel, the Archdiocese's XM Sirius radio station which launched in December 2006, and associate publisher of Catholic New York, the largest Catholic newspaper in the US, with more than 140,000 subscribers.
Zwilling's role and the outlets he oversees are intended to educate the media about the Catholic Church, while reaching out to the Catholic population with the religion's perspective of the world. The Catholic Channel, in particular, reflects the new ways in which the Archdiocese relates to all people about the Church's teachings.
"We are a very sophisticated nation of media consumers," he notes. "We have to be professional [and] modern in the presentation of our message. We don't change the core message [of the Church], but if we want people to listen, we have to be inviting."
One medium that has proven very consistent and effective in terms of outreach is the radio.
"So many times, people have called or e-mailed [and said] they were in the car listening and found it to be powerful," says Rob Astorino, program director for The Catholic Channel. "[It] allowed them to see their faith in a different way. Radio is passionate, immediate."
Astorino works closely with Zwilling, but was hesitant about the job at first because of his "preconceived notions of religious radio." Instead, the Channel is a place to discuss the lifestyles of ordinary Catholics.
"We're like everyone else," adds Astorino. "We try to reflect that."
While Zwilling says there is no "overt" missionary goal attached to his work, the opportunity for people to join the Church is always there.
More overt is how the Archdiocese addresses controversy. Without noting any issue in particular (during his visit, the Pope pointedly spoke about the Church's sex abuse scandal and Zwilling mentioned recent labor negotiations with New York Catholic school teachers during the interview with PRWeek), Zwilling discussed his approach to crisis.
"It's important we recognize where people are at - to be open about what happened, why it happened, and why it'll never happen again," he explains. "If we let [people] stay in that one area, we've failed. We need to show we're much more than that. We can't expect the public at large to put [things] behind them without a thought."
Beyond the needs of the Archdiocese, Zwilling has a personal connection to the work he does.
"I am a Catholic and this gives me tremendous affirmation in my faith," he says. "I'm not sure I could devote myself to what this job requires if it weren't something I personally believed in so strongly."
Nevertheless, Zwilling says the PR basics are a large part of the work he does. The deviation comes when you look at the end-product.
"Our bottom line is certainly not measured in dollars and cents."
Archdiocese of New York (ANY), director of comms
ANY, asst. director of comms
ANY, assistant director for media relations