IDK as a communications strategy

In text-lingo, the caps mean “I don’t know” – which doesn’t sound like much of a communications strategy!  For most leaders, an admission of ignorance suggests a deficiency.  When Pope Francis says it, though, it seems to bolster his image and discloses his appeal as a communicator.

At least that’s the claim made by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ during a presentation of a new book he edited.  Entitled Adesso Fate le Vostre Domande (“Now ask your questions”), the work collects eight interviews given by Pope Francis, described in the sub-title as “conversations on the Church and the world of tomorrow.”

Spadaro’s presentation of the book noted that the occasional uncertainty in the pope’s “I don’t know” actually makes his interviews more real.  In formulating extemporaneous responses to questions the pope had not seen prior to an interview, that answer says something beyond ignorance.  It discloses the conversational quality of this form of pope-speak, where the Holy Father freely shares his own hypotheses about the topic without claiming encyclopedic exactitude in his response.  In this, Spadaro says, we see not a popular personality, but the pope as himself.  It exemplifies not a shrewd communications strategy, but the “radically pastoral dimension” of his words.

Spadaro’s interlocutors during the presentation – two Italian journalists of long-standing reputation – echoed the same accolade.  What struck them in (re)reading the interviews was the pope’s rapport with journalists, the directness with which a pope would interact with the media and how this one does so with no fear.  They noted that the interview, as a genre, can often be used to build up or tear down the one being interviewed.  In the pope’s case, however, neither happens.  They attribute this to his dialogic approach (speaking “eye-to-eye”), compared to the less engaging experience of having to listen to a magisterial discourse.

Unfortunately, in a communications age that expects answers at the push of a search button, “I don’t know” seems unacceptable in the quest to know.  But the truth is that deep questions demand at least some reflection.

Church leaders tend to be asked about significant matters, sometimes supernatural in their mystery, but always of existential import to the questioner.  In that case, no one should be surprised at the pope’s IDK.  It’s a response any of us might give, in the humble acknowledgment that we don’t always have a precise answer at the tip of our tongues when it comes to grasping the ambiguities and complexities of this mortal life.

But the pope knows that he must answer – because the world awaits his response!  Eventually he usually does, either at a later moment in the interview when he comes back to a question, or in a subsequent follow-up after he has a chance to sleep on it.

We live now in a Twitter world, where questions are posed, answered or commented on in a limited number of words.  The penchant for sound bites has penetrated not only media interviews but our very thinking.  Referring to the effects of smartphone usage on our ability to remember information and reason about meaning, Nicholas Carr recently noted that “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.”

But the Church, as the pope says, has to be able to insert itself into people’s real-life conversations. In this we can follow the example of the risen Lord, who “interviewed” the discouraged disciples while walking with them on the road to Emmaus.

What’s the best way to do this?  IDK.

But now that my book has arrived, I’ll read it and get back to you!

featured image from Catholic News Service