Monday, April 21, 2008

Papal Public Relations

If you read a newspaper or turned on a TV over the last week you no doubt know that Pope Benedict XVI recently made his first ever visit to the United States. Our agency, on behalf of the Archdiocese of New York, was tasked with working with the thousands of media outlets that had converged on the New York portion of this historic trip.

As you can imagine, this was public relations event planning to the extreme. Months before the Holy Father landed in the US, we were working to field credentialing requests, process the approved outlets through the Secret Service background checks, and then assign the media to positions at various venues on the Vatican's itinerary like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Yankee Stadium, etc.

I won’t bore everyone with the endless hours spent mapping out thousands of media assignments but it’s worth noting that the security procedures were so tight that reporters and broadcasters were to be assigned to fixed positions. That is, once an outlet arrived at their respective location – for example: USA Today at position 13 near the choir loft at St Patrick’s – they were not allowed to move or roam around the venue to gain a better angle or to interview passersby.

This was all in an effort to restrict movement in the moments leading up to the Pope’s arrival or departure. The Secret Service would institute a ‘frozen’ zone surrounding the venue. That meant no bathroom breaks, no running back to the satellite truck for fresh batteries, nothing. No. Movement.

Those that attempted moving out of their assigned location risked getting escorted out of the venue entirely. And, while PR people may have profound respect and understanding for the important role that, say, an AP photographer fills in covering these events, the Secret Service did not distinguish between an unruly member of the public and a top tier photographer angling for a better shot.

With those rules in mind, you can imagine the job of us ‘media escorts’ in ushering the media through the Secret Service sweeps, on the bus, to the venue, to their fixed position, and then standing alongside a contingent of media that spent the entire day reporting live and filing stories.

At night, after getting back from full day of media escorting, we went back to the hotel, showered, changed into street clothes, and went back out to tape down media assignments for the next day’s venue. This was the easiest part of the job – we simply were to duct tape down signs with numbers that would serve as a blueprint of sorts for staff and media the next morning. Compared to the long hectic days, the quiet nights spent shuffling down the pews in empty, dimly lit churches were almost as refreshing as sleep itself. Almost.

This photo is taken from Saint Joseph's Yorkville in Manhattan. As luck would have it, I was assigned an incredible position, in front of the first pews nearly 20 feet from the altar. This photo was taken from that position during the hours we spent awaiting the Holy Father's arrival. In the foreground producers make final adjustments to the lighting, microphone, etc.

This is taken after the Yorkville service, from the steps of the Church. In the foreground Cardinals mill about on the street. In the center, background, a 'frozen' media position of broadcasters positioned to capture the Pope's arrival and departure.

Photo taken at Saint Joesph's Seminary in Yonkers. I was assigned to a huge section of broadcast media at a Youth Rally on the grounds of the Seminary. The rally was about
25,000 people and included Kelly Clarkson as a performer leading up to the Pope's arrival. Here, on-air talent and cameramen wait for the rally to begin in an area that became known as the Media Village as a small city seemingly sprung up overnight as hundreds of outlets set up shop. Unnamed reporter catches some sleep in the foreground. Video from the same position below.

Taken from the main press box in Yankee Stadium.

Video from same position below. Note the radio broadcasters in the rows below me. My apologies for the jerky movements, the box was packed with agents and media. Also I happened to take this clip when a Spanish-speaking performer was addressing the Holy Father. Regrettably, I do not know Spanish. Any guesses at a translation are welcome in the comments.

I plan to write a follow up post touching on the lessons learned after surviving such a massive event. For now, I just wanted to get these initial thoughts and pictures posted.

1 comment:

megroberts said...

This was a very interesting post that covered a different side of media relations. Even as a young PR pro, I was naive to how much work and organization went into an event this large. I look forward to reading your follow up post!