The Pope's Social Media Guy Describes Pontifex's Twitter Strategy

"Most of the teaching of Jesus – 'Love your neighbor.' you know, 'Don't think of yourself, think of others.' – all works in 140 characters."

by Monica Hunter-Hart
Getty Images / Franco Origlia

Pope Francis wrote, “Do not underestimate the value of example,” but he did so on Twitter, “for it is more powerful than a thousand words, a thousand ‘likes’, retweets or YouTube videos.” Even so, he recognizes that a thousand retweets is pretty powerful. Pope Benedict XVI created the Vatican’s Twitter presence, but Pope Francis made waves by expanding it into the famous and influential account it is today. The man behind the operation is Bishop Paul Tighe, who just spoke about his work at South by Southwest, of all places.

The bishop lectured at a rare faith-focused panel in SXSW’s tech conference, “Compassionate Disruption.” In an interview with NBC News before the event, he explained why the pope cares about having a stellar social media presence.

Social media is “shaping how people think,” he said. “It’s how they form their ideas, how they get their education — and if we’re not present in that digital world we’re going to be absent from their experience … We were told by Christ to go out to the whole world.”

Both Pope Francis’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are known for warm, inspirational messages. When pressed about his feelings towards our president’s, um, somewhat different tone, he declined to take a partisan stance on American politics (not that the pope has shied away from critiquing Trump on Twitter in the past). He noted, however, that the Vatican would continue to promote positivity.

Twitter’s character limit is supposed to force users to be concise. According to Tighe, quotes from the Bible are actually perfectly suited to the medium: “Most of the teaching of Jesus — ‘Love your neighbor.’ you know, ‘Don’t think of yourself, think of others.’ — all works in 140 characters.”

This guy has 10.5 million Twitter followers.

Getty Images / Franco Origlia

Tighe described simplicity and authenticity as key aspects of the pope’s social media strategy. Unfortunately, he did not discuss Popemojis. Maybe at SXSW 2018?

SXSW is an odd place for a Vatican presence, which the bishop acknowledged during the panel. “Despite all the sophistication, coolness, sarcasm, and the irony at an event like this, I think if you speak with authenticity, there’s still a possibility of touching people’s hearts.”