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September 19, 2014
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Pope teaching minister

By Marcelo J. García

Herald Staff

Bob Dylan could have never imagined one of his most memorable lines would be used to praise a Catholic Church leader on the very cover of Rolling Stone magazine, but the truth is that the times, they are actually a-changing when it comes to communication, human in general and political in particular.

The change is so deep that leaders are trying to grasp its real magnitude and its consequences — not without a dose of trial and error in the process. And as it happens during major change, the waters part between the optimists and the pessimists.

Take the case of Axel Kicillof, someone that should rank among the optimists given generational patterns, and would arguably fit nicer than the pope on the Rolling Stone cover. The economy minister, who is in his early 40s, said during a lengthy interview with the newspaper Página/12 last weekend that the social media were — just like some newspaper stories — "tools for misinformation." The line caused an instant negative frenzy on Twitter until people realized the minister has a few other more important things to say beyond theorizing about news media.

Almost double his age, Pope Francis also had a few things to say about news media last week. In a message to be read and discussed later this year by the Church's 48th World Communications Day, the pope said that the Internet is “a gift from God” and that, as the world grows smaller, “it would seem to be easier for all of us to be neighbours.”

“In a world like (ours), media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all,” writes the pope. "Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls that divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another."

He is not, however, a techno-optimistic purist. He also mentions the risk he sees in the new forms of human communication, including the possibility of people being unable to cope with the speed of information and barricading themselves from whatever is different from their own opinions.

"The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression," reads the message. "The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests."

But the pope finally makes up his mind in the dilemma between good and evil in the communications landscape of our times. "While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement."

There is little doubt that the pope has caused a global communication stir in just under a year in the Holy See. He is just like Barack Obama seven years ago (a Nobel piece prize on his way this year?) But unlike Obama, who struggled to translate the "hope" inspired by his words into concrete reform and policy, the Pope has the advantage that his Chair is largely symbolical and his job is mostly about gestures and words (although the Vatican might also need some reform).

Minister Kicillof's job, on the contrary, is less about talking than it is about resolving Argentina's economic riddle, in a country that fancies to spiral into crisis every once in a while. The stormy past of economy ministers in times of crisis has shown that, no matter what they say, their words are inevitably used against them as the country walks toward a possible abyss.

But Kicillof is now out of the inner circle of politics that until now — "now" meaning before he was appointed economy minister in late November — kept him as a secondary figure to the eyes of the big public. With inflation galloping and the peso devaluation bringing back traumatic memories, the young minister has been catapulted to fame and will now have to deal with it.

Up until now, Kicillof could get away with picking political and economic circles as his target audiences every time he spoke in public. Lambasting the messenger — journalists — is acceptable in that context. But it is not any more, when your are talking to the big public instead — including that suburban housewife who just found out he is the person in charge of her economic fate.

Ultimately, the pope's message is that communication is about the message and the messenger rather than the media. “Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator,” he writes. There is only so much a marketing wizard or a community manager can do about it.

@mjotagarcia

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