How the Pope's PR Machinery Failed

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Whether or not Benedict has learned his communication lesson, at least now he has in place several key advisors who can improve his approach on the world stage. Sodano's replacement, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was Ratzinger's top deputy in his former job as the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. From his first day on the new job last Friday, Bertone has led what for the Vatican has been a rather rapid response to the precipitous fallout from the Pope's speech. Benedict's public declaration Sunday of his regret, and his clarification of his remarks, was an unprecedented example of papal backtracking. Behind the scenes, Bertone has also launched a diplomatic campaign, as the Holy See's representatives — or nuncios — in Muslim countries have been dispatched to meet government representatives to try to calm the waters.

Aiding Bertone are two other new arrivals, key to getting out the right message. The Germany trip was the first for the new head of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, already the director general of Vatican radio and television, who takes over for longtime papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls. Though Navarro-Valls, a suave Opus Dei layman, was prized for his ability to shape John Paul's message for the modern media, he too had appeared to be biding his time since the start of this pontificate. The Jesuit scholar Lombardi, a much more low-key figure, must begin to help translate Benedict's lofty prose into the stuff of daily news copy. Also, just last week, the new head of the Vatican's foreign affairs office was named. It is Mons. Dominique Mamberti, a Moroccan-born Frenchman, who has spent much of his diplomatic tenure in Muslim countries.

Ultimately, though, it is up to the Pope to hit the right notes. Wednesday's general audience was a chance to try to close the news cycle, and Benedict reiterated for what will likely be the final time that the Byzantine quote did not reflect his views toward Islam. Security in St. Peter's Square was stepped up, and perhaps it will remain on higher levels for years to come on account of the current uproar. The Pope, in any case, does seem to believe that religious violence is indeed a "top story" of our times; but with a little more PR savvy, he might begin to help reverse the current storyline, rather than fuel it.

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