Un-Pope-ular: Philadelphia’s PR disaster tarnishes its second-class self-image

October 7, 2015
caution tape

Some 1.5 million people were expected to converge on Philadelphia last month when Pope Francis made a visit to our fair city. According to some crowd security experts, the real turnout could have been as low as 140,000. The City, which had hoped to gain a bounce in image and reputation from the visit, was left to explain away the miss and soothe the anger of restaurant and hotel operators who lost big bucks because of the no shows.

Philly blew a national PR opportunity by promoting the Pope’s visit as a crisis instead of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

What happened? Classic PR missteps all around, such as:

  1. Negative narrative always leads to nightmares. Instead of presenting the Pope’s visit as a once-in-a-lifetime event, the City and its PR team painted it as a natural disaster on par with a major hurricane. Major fail. They should have led with the positives instead of the negatives such as traffic, potential terrorism, and overall inconvenience.
  2. Act like a big boy. You didn’t see New York or Washington overreact to the visit. So why Philly? Because deep in the recesses of a Philadelphian’s mind, we really do consider ourselves a second-class city, especially compared to our northern and southern brothers and sisters. It showed in our preparation and PR. Instead of playing to win, Philadelphia played not to lose and we all got played because of it.
  3. Get real and stop over-blowing the risk. The City was nearly comedic in its warnings. Claiming that traffic would be backed up for 100 miles (ha ha, the roads were empty) and that major bridges just had to be closed down. Ridiculous and the hyperbole kept people away and caused locals to leave town for the weekend.
  4. Not knowing your audience. Philly and its PR counsel totally misunderstood the audience for the Pope. It’s comprised of devout pilgrims, focused on the event, not on four-star hotels and swanky restaurants. Not much money was spent, but it could have been if the City had not chased away regulars.
  5. Missing the most important message of all: What’s in it for me? Philadelphia missed a huge opportunity to transform the event into something for everyone, and keep cheeks in seats ready and willing to spend money. From the start, they should have urged locals to stay and experience the city transformed into a pedestrian paradise with restaurants and attractions thrown open for their enjoyment. Nah. Forget the experience; focus on the risk, the trouble, the bother. Unforgivable.

Philadelphia’s PR failed from the start by presenting the visit as an obligation and not an opportunity. City leadership and PR counsel chose to scare residents instead of enlighten and engage them. In the end, what should have been a showcase turned into a shit show of PR missteps further diminishing the City’s image and reputation, this time on a national level.

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