Meet the Tech Company That’s Bringing The Vatican Into the Digital Age
Late last month, the Vatican unveiled the latest component of what’s become an increasingly sophisticated digital presence for the centuries old religious institution– a smartphone app. “The Pope App,” as it’s called, is designed to be a one-stop-shop for anyone seeking to connect with The Pope via smartphone.
Using The Pope App, you can scroll through The Pope’s messages, watch his speeches, connect with the Vatican on social media and even take a live look into Saint Peter’s Square via webcam. After a few moments browsing, it’s hard not to wonder just what went into getting the thing live. The force behind the app, as it turns out, is a mid-sized Spanish agency called 101 whose three year relationship with Vatican began with a decidedly non-digital piece of communication– a handwritten note.
The note was penned by Gustavo Entrala, CEO of 101, who wrote it after catching wind of a papal speech in which The Pope declared a need for the Vatican to improve its online presence. As was standard practice at 101 anytime a leader of a company publicly expressed dissatisfaction with its online efforts, Entrala wrote the Vatican and let it know 101 could help.
In the letter, Entrala empathized with the Vatican’s situation. He wrote about 101′s experience teaching organizations in similar positions how to use internet as an effective communication tool and how digital methods could be used to increase transparency. He asked the Vatican to bring 101 in for a strategy session and concluded with a mention, a short footnote as he called it, of his Catholic faith. Not long afterward, the Vatican responded. They were interested in the strategy session.
When Entrala and his team went to the Vatican for the first time, Entrala expected to find a bunch of technological amateurs. Instead, he was met by a group of smartphone wielding communications pros ready to talk tech. “We were really surprised about the level of individual adaptation to the internet that these guys had,” Entrala said. Already ahead of the game, his team got to work.
Over the course of three days, 101 went through a series of sessions with the Vatican, covering the new media landscape, social media trends among young people, the changing nature of institutional communications and crisis management PR. The audience was receptive, Entrala said. “They all shared the sense that the Vatican needed to make a big leap on the internet,” he explained. It was 2010 at the time, so understandably so.
The seminar ended with a brainstorm. “We had all these people, some of them priests and some of them laymen and we asked them to think about new ideas that could convey the message of the church,” Entrala said. Some ideas were wild, some unfeasible, but the one that everyone in the room seemed to like was a website to aggregate all the news from a fragmented Vatican content ecosystem in one central place. The website, it was said, could be useful as a single point of reference for all Vatican news, especially given the large role content, and its discoverability, played in the way brands got their message across online, something still true today.
Six months after their visit, 101 received a call from The Vatican. They liked the idea of the central news site and wanted 101 to help build it. Entrala and his partners agreed and signed on for their first major Vatican project.
The Papal Tweet
When the time came to launch the website, officially named News.va, Entrala suggested the Vatican do it with a tweet from The Pope himself. This was the summer of 2011, over a year before the launch of The Pope’s official @Pontifex account, and the Vatican was skeptical. Entrala’s team thought there was a case to be made, and dug up a precedent from way back in the 1930s. They pointed to the story of Pope Pius XI’s launch of Vatican radio in 1931. The launch, assisted by Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of long distance radio, debuted with series of morse code dashes and dots sent out by The Pope. “You can see how The Pope sent something very similar to a tweet in 1931,” Entrala told the Vatican, who apparently saw the logic in his argument. “Ten minutes later,” Entrala said, “We received a call from the Vatican saying that the Pope was going to tweet.”
The Pope did send that Tweet, his first, in June 2011 and, as the @news_va_en account he sent it from gained tens of thousands of followers in the days following, discussions began floating around the Vatican about a personal account for The Pope. You may be familiar with the result, The Pope’s @Pontifex account, which was launched in late 2012.
An Ongoing Relationship
With News.va built, the core content for The Pope App was ready to be molded into its current form. Having built News.va and worked with the Vatican as a digital consultant since, 101 was the natural choice for the Vatican to contract with. Entrala’s agency built The Pope App and is now working on translating it into Android and iPad versions. There are more projects in the hopper, Entrala said, including a series of eBooks and others he could not reveal. “It’s confidential,” he said when asked about the other suggestions that brimmed up during the initial brainstorm. “But, you will see some of them. Keep an eye out.”
Entrala won’t take too much credit for the work he’s doing, but he is living up to one of the central promises of his initial letter: helping an institution viewed by many as closed and bureaucratic increase transparency through digital means. The Pope, Entrala says, seems to be a fan of the new channels, enjoying the ability to speak to the masses through them, especially with a limited travel schedule. “I think he’s happy to be there” Entrala said. “That’s the sense I get from talking to the Vatican people who help The Pope.”
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