Since his election as leader of the Catholic Church in March 2013, Pope Francis has become one of the world’s most recognized faces — he also has nearly five million Twitter followers.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of London is capitalizing on the Pope’s broad appeal to believers and non-believers alike to launch what Mark Adkinson, director of communications and development for the Diocese, calls “a small-scale experiment.”
The Diocese — for the first time in its history — has strategically placed billboards in high-traffic areas around the city. The billboards feature a large picture of Pope Francis, quotes from his Twitter account, a To Do list reminding people not to forget to pray, and the Diocesan website address.
The first billboards went up last week, with successive waves to go up Dec. 8 and Dec. 29.
Through the use of billboards, website and social media, Adkinson said the Diocese is attempting to remind London residents of the role religion can play in their daily lives.
“It wasn’t meant to be a recruitment campaign; it isn’t supporting a specific program or ministry we have,” Adkinson said. “It was just a simple message, encouraging people to pray and let people know God loves them. That is basically it.”
While social media plays an important role in sharing that message, featuring Pope Francis on the billboards is what Adkinson said is why the campaign is already showing signs of success.
Pope Francis has been “extremely popular” since his election, Adkinson said, and not only with Catholics and Christians, but also people who don’t belong to any faith.
The simplicity of the campaign is what Adkinson said is making it so effective. After all, there is only so much that can be done in the limited amount of space offered by a billboard.
“That was the biggest challenge, finding something short and simple enough. And we didn’t want to appeal just to Catholics; we wanted to appeal to everybody,” Adkinson said. “If someone is stuck in traffic, or waiting at a light, and they see the message, which encourages them to think about their faith a little bit more, well, we're happy with that.”
Adkinson said the Diocese understands people today are expressing their faith in many different ways — and not necessarily through attending their local church every Sunday.
Anabel Quan-Haase, a Western University associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, agrees with Adkinson’s assessment.
The move of religion into the digital world, Quan-Haase said, has been going on for more than a decade now. Today, social media represents an opportunity for “religion and the every day” to come closer.
"The Internet used to be the domain of academics, and then the geeks, but today everyone plays a part in what is called the mainstreaming of the net,” Quan-Haase said. “It makes sense for religion to be a part of this. They church wants to get the message out and they have realized that many people want that message to come to them.”
Quan-Haase said she believes if the church, and it can be any denomination, wants to reach out to people, using social media allows them “to connect in a very direct way.”
As if to back up Quan-Haase’s point, Adkinson said the Diocese has been getting a lot of feedback, mostly through Twitter and Facebook. The response to the billboards has been the largest of any social media posts the Diocese has made in the past number of years.
“The number reached, the posts, the shares, it's surprising how positively people are reacting to it,” Adkinson said. “People think it is a great idea; they think we should be doing more of it. The only negative comments have been why not do it everywhere in the Dioceses.”
With the initial reaction to the campaign having been “extremely positive and encouraging,” Adkinson said it may well be expanded in the future.