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Pope Francis during his inauguration Mass at the Vatican, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. The new pontiff is winning raves from Catholics. But, in time, he could see flagging support from both conservative and progressive members. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Analysis: Francis — the pope pop star
Analysis » New pontiff is off to a strong start, but will it last?
First Published Aug 08 2013 04:16 pm • Last Updated Aug 12 2013 12:02 pm

In the wake of Pope Francis’ triumphant visit to Brazil, writers for the rival National Catholic Register and National Catholic Reporter were left debating whether he’s "a gift to the church" or a "revolutionary."

The Italian edition of Vanity Fair has named him Man of the Year. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, of all places, quotes him in a post on forgiveness. Ross Douthat in The New York Times nods approvingly at a piece in The Telegraph that says Francis has "decontaminated the Catholic brand."

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And so on and so on.

Not bad for four months on the job. After the triumph of Brazil and the plane ride back, is there any question that Francis is an international pop culture hero? For Catholics and non-Catholics across the globe, the positive buzz is all but unrelenting. And how many of those singing his praises today could have picked him out of a lineup in February?

In 2013, cultural icons surge and retreat like tsunamis. Remember Carly Rae Jepsen? (Sure you do: "Call Me Maybe?") But even in this viral era, lightning international popularity with a moral message is something unusual. Since the dawn of broadcast media, who else has managed this trick as well as Francis when starting with so little in the way of fame?

Early Barack Obama had the massive international buzz, helped by his name, his race, and his great oratory. Recall candidate Obama’s joyous visit to Germany in 2008. But his popularity at home has never been much beyond a bare majority.

Boris Yeltsin? Early on he had the benefit of not being the dour Mikhail Gorbachev and of becoming the first president of non-Soviet Russia. And then he was given the dramatic stage of surviving a coup attempt by hard-liners — along with that impromptu speech he gave atop a tank. He became, for a while, an international hero of freedom. And he had a certain rough charm. Your happy-drunk uncle.

John Paul II? Of course, he also had remarkably good stuff early on. But his natural gifts were amplified by Cold War politics and the then-novelty of a non-Italian pope. Francis is mostly generating his own tailwind.

Desmond Tutu? Unquestionably a star. But his international fame built over many years. Ditto Nelson Mandela.

The Dalai Lama? He’s more like a jazz star than a rock star. He mostly fills auditoriums, not stadiums.


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The Beatles? Among a certain age group, there are parallels. Like Francis, they both rode a wave and helped create it. And, yes, embedded in a lot of their music was a moral message or two.

John F. Kennedy? The "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963 may best capture his moment.

What do experts in image say about Francis and his context? Guy Golan teaches about public and diplomatic relations at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University and also studies the confluence of religion and media.

Yes, Francis has quickly accomplished something special, he said.

"This pope gives people a reason to be excited about the Catholic Church. And not just the faithful," he said. "I’m an Israeli Jew and I’m paying attention."

What are the elements that help someone achieve that kind of success? Actions that demonstrate leadership and align with organizational values, Golan said. And it doesn’t hurt to appear unscripted.

For Golan, a better comparison than those political or religious figures is William Clay Ford. Great-grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Co., he took over when the corporate reputation was at a nadir and guided the company back from the brink.

His message, said Golan: "We’re going back to the same values that my grandfather brought."

That call back to successful values worked in part, Golan said, because the younger Ford acted in ways that were visibly consistent with those values — emphasizing the importance of employees over a simple return to shareholders.

Reuters recounted how Bill Ford reacted to a plant explosion that killed six Ford workers shortly after he took over:

"Ford, then 42 and a recent arrival as chairman, bucked the advice of handlers who told them that a general does not go to the front lines. His response: ‘Then bust me down to private.’ He also won over lifelong friends among Ford factory workers by attending the funerals for the victims and expressing his remorse."

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