Pope's travels serve as model events

Special events come in all shapes and sizes. Contestants for this year's Silver Anvil Award for events included grand openings, dedications, even the President's inauguration.

Special events come in all shapes and sizes. Contestants for this year's Silver Anvil Award for events included grand openings, dedications, even the President's inauguration.

Many of us in public relations stage such events. Rarely do we have the opportunity to be part of those that are not only special, but also historic, inspirational, and even sacred ceremonies. I was fortunate to have such an experience as part of the team responsible for media arrangements for two visits to the US of Pope John Paul II.

In 1987, and again in 1995, I was invited to help organize papal visits that spanned multiple cities over multiple days. Each time, the Pope was coming as pastor of a church driven by issues from abortion and homosexuality to the role of women in the liturgy. Advance planning focused on these issues, the potential for demonstrations, media interest in such controversies, and associated matters of security. Time magazine captured the mood in the title of its cover story before the '87 visit, "A Feisty Flock Awaits the Pope."

Special event professionals understand the complexities of logistics and anticipation. We work hard to ensure that we know precisely what is going to happen and that everything is in its proper place. When the plan calls for a dozen or more separate events daily in 10 cities over nine days, a traveling media contingent filling two jumbo jets, and massive crowds on the ground, logistics and anticipation become overwhelming.

Those of us planning these two visits wrote minutely detailed schedules for each city. We identified media and camera positions, organized pool coverage, timed transportation between venues, and set up filing centers for traveling and locally based press that in 1987 totaled more than 16,000 credentialed journalists and crew. All of this was carefully coordinated with priests, bishops, and other clergy responsible for planning masses, prayer services, and the administration of sacraments indoors and outdoors, in stadiums and fields, in cathedrals and chapels.

What few of us adequately anticipated was the enormous power of the man himself. In city after city, venue after venue, the Pope elicited a surge of emotion that couldn't have been planned or orchestrated. Hardened journalists were moved by scenes of families camping through the night on hillsides overlooking an auto racetrack in Monterrey so they might glimpse the Pope even at distances of nearly a mile. In San Antonio, the crowd for an outdoor mass exceeded the fenced-in area. Despite a blazing sun, the faithful stayed and received Communion through the chain links of the fence. In 1995, at Giants Stadium, rain so torrential it filled the field basin with water inches deep had little effect. Every seat and standing area remained filled. When the Pope entered, the cheers exceeded anything a maniacal Sunday football crowd could possibly produce.

Pope John Paul II understood the power of special events as a means for communication. He knew it was one thing to appear on television from the Vatican, but something uniquely galvanizing to appear in person. He recognized that his presence added weight and immediacy to his key messages about faith. He appreciated that all people, especially young people, needed the moral guide his personal example could provide. And, at a time when the Catholic Church seemed sometimes aloof and distant from its core audiences, he restored the connection in fundamentally human ways.

After Mass in Central Park in New York, he sang to children in Polish. None of us planners anticipated that. At the University of South Carolina, he rallied students gathered on the campus mall the way a cheerleader might, engaging them in a chant-and-response whoop that ended with a salute to their school. The resulting pandemonium threw our departure logistics into disarray. In San Francisco, he prayed with AIDS victims at an ancient mission. The protesters outside were largely ignored in the ensuing news reports. We had expected otherwise.

We talk in our business about planning, organization, and - especially in the case of special events - logistics and anticipation. As communicators planning special events, we might do well to look beyond these basics and consider the Pope's foreign travels as models for future special events.

If we can create programs that give our spokespeople the platforms to, as he did, speak with consistency, perform with energy, move with solemnity, and touch audiences with humanity, we'll have learned better lessons than any textbooks or seminars on the subject could impart.

  • Peter Stanton is president of Stanton Communications.

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