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The push to humanize the pope via custom emoji

'I think we needed it, maybe, as a culture, this kind of visit.'


Audra Schroeder


Posted on Oct 1, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 9:17 pm CDT

The social media push to humanize Pope Francis reached an ecstatic pitch last week, when his holiness visited the States and the news cycle was enraptured: He’s kissing babies! He’s visiting inmates! He’s laying down deep truths about our political system! Cool pope!

Once he left the States, some dark truths started to emerge: He’d met with Kim Davis. He’d possibly been conned into meeting with Kim Davis. Maybe he didn’t believe in same-sex unions. …Cool pope?

Lana McGilvray, principal for the Austin, Texas-based Blast, the public relations company behind some of the social media blitz that anticipated the pope’s arrival, was tasked with getting people amped about cool pope, and keeping the momentum going online once he left and our attention was drawn to other topics.

“In my opinion, our biggest challenge is keeping messages like this phenomenal one alive post-campaign and blitz,” she said.  

Blast was approached by Kathleen Hessert, CEO of Sports Media Challenge, to create a social media campaign for the visit. The third part of the trinity was Aleteia, a Catholic media network, which proposed the central hashtag-worthy concepts of the messaging: “Good is winning” and “Pope is hope.” The focus was on millennials, but not necessarily just Catholic millennials.

Blast had two months of lead time to conceptualize the campaign, and worked with emoji keyboard creators Swyft Media to create something shareable: Popemoji, which were deployed on Snapchat and Facebook. Blast then tracked engagement and saw social and traditional media intersect, like when Jimmy Kimmel mentioned the emoji. 

According to McGilvray, the custom pope emoji keyboard was downloaded more than 86,000 times, and there were 799,000 Popemoji circulated in the span of two weeks, with more than 8 million interactions.

He’s eating a cheesesteak! He’s running up the steps like in Rocky!

Blast PR

“I think they were really authentic,” McGilvray said. “It struck me that he actually looked quite like the emojis when he actually was doing the physical tour. …In one case, he’s headbutting a soccer ball. He likes soccer, and he’s been very vocal about that. …I think the clever was very wrapped around the authentic, in this case, moreso than anything super humorous. The humor was in the true communication of the type of person he is.”

Millennials were the driving force behind the digital #goodiswinning campaign, which was headquartered in Philadelphia. The volunteers worked out of a “social listening center,” and tweeted pro-pope messages from their personal social media accounts. There were even COWS, cell stations on wheels, placed around sites where the pope was speaking to handle massive data usage and literally offer a signal boost.

Blast PR

“I think the thing that knocked my socks off was just how positive it was,” McGilvray said. “We’ve communicated with lots of different campaigns and subjects people don’t know about or are less interested in. We’ve communicated around crises. And this particular engagement, I was just overwhelmed by how positive the engagement with the pope messages were. I think there were probably a couple things feeding into it. I think time and place; I think we needed it, maybe, as a culture, this kind of visit. But I was getting more personal outreaches from people who saw this campaign than I’d ever received in my life.” 

But it wasn’t just millennials who got into it. 

“I had someone ask if I could share the emojis because her [92-year-old] mother was staying alive to get through this visit.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Oct 1, 2015, 6:35 pm CDT