Pope Francis on Reframing the Conversation

The pontiff, who visits the US this week, has effectively used symbols in his communications to change the dialogue about the Roman Catholic Church. Photo by Tânia Rêgo for Agência Brasil, used under Creative Commons 3.0 Brazil license.
By Mike Kuczkowski

Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical scenario for the 2016 presidential election. After a tough series of primary battles, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire[i], is drafted out of retirement by enthusiastic Democratic supporters into the South Carolina primary and secures a stunning win.

After a run of primary victories, she secures enough delegates to compete for the party nomination. She makes a moving four-minute speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, speaking stirringly of America’s need to recall its origins and find strength in essential truths: freedom, liberty, equality of opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. After five ballots, she wins.

Throughout the fall, the nation watches as she projects a humble yet visionary profile. In two presidential debates, she is sharp, articulate and unruffled. Her ads are upbeat and optimistic. On a cold and expectant November night, she accepts a phone call from her opponent, who concedes. Against all expectations, she has won.

That night, she appears before a massive crowd of supporters in jeans and a t-shirt. They cheer her madly. Beaming generously, she says simply “Thank you,” and wades into the throng shaking hands and embracing supporters. Days after the election, she announces that she will not move into the White House, preferring an apartment in Georgetown. On Inauguration Day, after taking the oath of office, she serves dinner to prisoners — something no sitting American president has ever done.

Just imagine….

That is a rough equivalent of what happened in March 2013 when Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church following the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio hails from a country — and a continent — that has never before produced a pope. He was elected on the fifth ballot of the papal conclave, after giving a four-minute speech about the church’s need to return to its evangelical roots, spreading the good news of Christ.

As Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to America this week, there will be much reflection on his leadership of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. Yet, while the media will talk about the church’s major scandals and the many unresolved debates facing the institution, Francis has stepped aside from the culture wars and advanced a powerful dialogue centered on love, compassion and poverty. For Catholics (disclosure: I’m one) it is as though we are talking about an entirely different church than just a few years ago.

Looking at his 2 1/2 years in office, Pope Francis serves as a powerful example of how leaders can use symbols to reframe the dialogue surrounding their institutions, and how quickly communications can change culture.

Naming conventions: Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is to Catholics what Abraham Lincoln is to Americans — a larger-than-life figure who represents humility, intelligence and a bias toward peace. It is notable that in the 785 years since St. Francis’s canonization, Bergoglio is the first pope to use the name. His first words upon election, “Although I am a sinner, I accept,” signaled a humbler approach.

Stand-up guy: Traditionally, the new pope sits, as if on a throne, and greets the members of the conclave who have just elected him. Pope Francis stood. Mic drop. (Or, perhaps, the opposite.)

Fashion statements: The vestments of priests, cardinals and other religious orders are part of the ritualism of the church, of which the pope’s regalia is the most elaborate. Red slip-on shoes, fur-trimmed velvet capes. Not for Pope Francis. He eschewed those clothes in favor of simpler vestments, wears regular black shoes, and rides the bus. He says morning mass four days a week at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives in a suite rather than occupying the Papal Apostolic Palace. He drives a Ford Focus, rather than the traditional chauffeured Mercedes.

The washing of the feet: There is a tradition in the Catholic faith that on Holy Thursday, as part of the celebration of the Last Supper, a presiding priest will wash the feet of a dozen people, recreating Jesus’s act of washing the feet of his disciples. (I had my feet washed when I was 10 as an altar boy, and trust me, you want to have very clean feet.) For centuries, the pope traditionally washed the feet of a dozen senior priests and clerics. Pope Francis, a month after his election, went to a juvenile detention center and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners. Two of the prisoners were women, at least two were Muslims — also firsts.

Media Savvy: The pope famously does not hold press conferences, but he does give press interviews — often on the papal plane, during state visits. In one of his first interviews, asked about rumors of homosexuality surrounding a priest he had appointed to oversee an internal investigation into the Vatican bank, Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” That response has come to embody the compassion of his papacy and has been widely quoted. His first major interview, granted in September 2013, yielded the following Q and A: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After a pause, he said “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” (The interview itself, at 40,000 words, is an astonishing read.)

Vision Statements: Pope Francis’s symbolism has not been without depth of thinking. He has so far issued two encyclicals, or major public statements on church doctrine. The first was titled “The Light of Faith,” and in keeping with his more positive public agenda, emphasized the elements of love, tolerance, openness and

duty to the poor. The second was a treatise on the environment that spoke broadly of the need for social justice.

The list doesn’t stop there. He has allowed a child who had wandered up to the Pope’s side to remain at his side during a speech at the Vatican. He made headlines around the world for embracing a severely disfigured man. He has taken aim at the curia and the Vatican Bank. And he has personally helped broker a peace agreement between Cuba and the United States.

In their 2003 book “Reframing Organizations,” Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal propose that decades of management theory can be distilled into a four-frame model. The structural frame involves thinking of the organization as a machine, like the early Ford factories. The human resource frame looks at an organization like a family. The political frame looks at the organization as jungle. The symbolic frame considers the organization as theater.

Pope Francis clearly understands this last frame, with its emphasis on culture, rituals and ceremonies. As papal biographer Paul Vallely said last week on NPR’s Fresh Air, “[T]here are lots of little symbolic things, and one of the things about the Church is it’s a place of symbol. So people say, ‘oh it’s just symbolic,’ but it’s not just symbolic in the church. Changing the symbols is changing the substance in some ways.”

Vallely is careful to describe Pope Francis not as a liberal, pointing out that he has been largely consistent with historic church doctrine on issues like contraception and the ordination of women. But, he does consider Francis a radical, and he credits Francis’s symbolic leadership with leading the church forward.

“All those kind of things — they’re not intuitive or spontaneous. This is how he was when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, so he’s bringing that notion with him. Christians must change to respond to the modern world. That’s what he’s saying. And, the change starts with the Pope.”

Just two years in, Pope Francis’s legacy is very much a work in progress. The church still has many deeply troubling issues with which it must grapple. But in his use of symbols and his communications, Pope Francis has shown a remarkable ability to shift the dialogue both within and around the church. Expect to see more of his deft use of symbols in the week ahead, and beyond.


[i] I know nothing of Gov. Gregoire. The fact that she is a female governor and from the state of Washington (unlike any president yet) makes her a unique metaphor for Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit and from the Americas.

Trump’s Winning Narrative

To understand Donald Trump’s lead in the polls, look closely at the narrative he’s constructing about himself – and America. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.
By Mike Kuczkowski

It was January 2004, and I was meeting with my boss when a colleague knocked on the door and popped in. “Hey, did you see ‘The Apprentice’ last night?”

My boss and I looked at each other and smirked. “No.”

The smirk was telling. The program, which was being billed as “The Ultimate Job Interview,” featured real estate magnate Donald Trump and a cast of 16 contestants who vied for a one-year, $250,000 job in Trump’s organization. As a concept, the show sounded like a loser.

And then there was Trump himself. Or, as he was known, The Donald — a larger than life real estate and casino magnate whose claims to fame included a high-profile affair with actress Marla Maples (while he was still married to his first wife, Ivana Trump), a lavish lifestyle followed by bankruptcy and a seemingly bottomless well of egotistical and caustic quotes. Trump was the poster boy for the crashing and burning of the 1980s lifestyle of the rich and famous. He was a joke.

Still, our colleague pressed on. The show was something to see. The tasks were surprising, well designed to reveal the leadership qualities (and shortcomings) of the contestants. The teams — one for the men, one for the women — highlighted some really interesting dynamics. And, most importantly, Trump, who winnowed out the field in the final boardroom scene of the episode with what would eventually become his catch-phrase (“You’re fired!”), was a revelation.

“He was a lot more interesting and insightful than I had expected,” our colleague said. “A lot.”

I tuned in the following week, partly so that if my boss asked about it, I’d be able to say I had. I was stunned. Our colleague was right. Trump was no buffoon. He had hired strong leaders to run his organization. He was very observant. He was unpredictable. He gave insightful feedback. He displayed values around hard work, collaboration and entrepreneurial thinking.

Trump was the real deal.

I watched every episode that season, a rare instance of appointment TV viewing for me. I learned a lot more than I expected, and “The Apprentice” went on to be a huge television hit with 14 seasons to its credit.

So here we are, 11 years later, watching Donald Trump the presidential candidate fare far better than expected.

In watching Trump’s success for the past few weeks, I’ve been amazed, though not necessarily surprised, at how he has dominated the field of Republican candidates. With his willingness to hurl insults, engage in stunts and generally court controversy, he is giving a master class in media manipulation.

One day he gives out Lindsay Graham’s cell phone number at a rally. A few weeks later, he insults Sen. John McCain’s war record. A few weeks after that, he ejects Univision’s Jorge Ramos from a press conference. Trump generates so much media attention for his comments and his actions that there’s little room for the press to cover anyone or anything else. I’m certain that reporters on his beat feel like they must always be attentive for a potentially headline-grabbing quote. He defines “attention-grabbing.”

But, Trump is no mere demagogue, as some observers claim.

If Trump succeeds, and he well may, it will be on the strength of the narrative he is constructing — and the narrative he represents.

Simply put, a narrative is a story. It involves characters and a plot, a conflict and a resolution. Narratives have been with us, in the form of mythical tales and works of art, for centuries. Recent research shows that the human brain is hard-wired to respond to narratives. In the context of strategic communications, a narrative is a sense-making vehicle that explains how the world looks from the organization’s perspective.

In his 2004 book “Changing Minds,” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner uses the political campaign of Margaret Thatcher to illustrate how a narrative can be a powerful tool to unite a diverse audience, as in an election.

In 1979, when Thatcher ran for Prime Minister, Gardner says she embraced a simple slogan: “Britain has lost its way.” At the time, she was speaking to an electorate that must have felt like the country’s best days were behind it. It had seen Britain win World War II and then dismantle its empire, join up with various European institutions, and allow unions and civil servants to take dominant roles in society.

Thatcher, Gardner says, asserted that if she became Prime Minister, she would change all of that. She would reinvigorate the economy, reassert Britain’s leadership abroad and get the country moving again.

Gardner says there were two keys to Thatcher’s success. First, she wove a story to the nation about the nation’s recent decline that felt real and right, and motivated many people to take action.

Second, her personal story mapped to the story she had created about Britain at that time, and suggested that she was uniquely qualified to lead Britain out of its current state. She had grown up in a middle-class family. She had worked hard in school and had done well, earning a degree in chemistry from Oxford. She had ran for office as a conservative, taking on roles in the Shadow Cabinet and advancing within the party structure through determination and persistence. She had not been born into anything, which meant that as a leader, she could speak to a path forward that would require hard work and smarts.

Whatever one thinks of Thatcher’s ascendance or policies, Gardner’s analysis casts an interesting light on the power of narratives to unite a diverse population.

How does this analysis apply to Trump?

First, let’s look at a potential narrative for the country, from the perspective of middle-class white Republican primary voters who have Trump leading the field in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

America emerged from the Cold War as the lone superpower. Yet, in an era of globalization, we’ve seen good middle-class manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas, and high-paying innovation jobs be given to highly educated immigrants. Our leadership internationally has been diminished by a series of wars that have not ‘won’ us security at home. Constituencies for issues like gay marriage earn victories, while we are told to just accept change. Our economic security is shaky. Our educational system has us lagging the world. Our government keeps expanding, but we’re not sure what it does for us. Our president speaks like a professor, and our government always seems on the edge of shutting down.

I’m not saying these things are right, but I think for many Americans, particularly the socially conservative voters Republicans have been courting for more than 20 years, they resonate.

Then along comes Trump. He demonizes immigrants. He talks about building a wall to keep immigrants out and making someone else pay for it. To the middle class, again, that probably sounds like a pretty good deal. He demonizes the political class. He says that government is too big. He calls it like he sees it.

At a deeper level, though, Trump is constructing a narrative that America has lost its way and that he — the “really rich” businessman (his own words) — has what it takes to chart a better course.

He has, after all, succeeded in rebuilding a commercial empire after falling nearly $1 billion in debt. He has succeeded in real estate, entertainment, personal branding, sports and even beauty pageants. If Trump maintains his current momentum, expect to hear more about his personal story (as with this week’s in-depth Rolling Stone profile) in ways that support his ability to lead America forward.

Trump also has a winning ability to laugh at himself, as with last week’s bit on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. That’s pure genius. Only someone with real, genuine self-confidence can get up there and do a bit like that.

Why shouldn’t Trump have that self-confidence? He’s been a huge success. Just ask him.

And why shouldn’t America have that self-confidence? Make no mistake, that’s a message that has broad appeal to millions of Americans, who would – per Trump’s slogan – like to “Make America Great Again.”

Trump surprised me once, in 2004. That’s not going to happen again.

Happy Bloomsday!

The inscription page from the first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company in 1922. The book was banned for a decade in the United States on obscenity charges.


By Mike Kuczkowski

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the day on which James Joyce first went strolling around Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Also, the date on which Joyce imagined a short story taking place that would follow an ad man, Leopold Bloom, around Dublin. Which, Joyce later expanded into the 18-chapter, 768-page epic novel “Ulysses.” Which, according to the Modern Library, is considered the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Which, was modeled after Homer’s Odyssey. Which means there will be Bloomsday breakfasts and walking tours around Dublin and dances in Croatia and Irish music in Brazil and dramatic readings, surely more than one enunciating the book’s final poetic words with vigor.

Which, of course, served as the inspiration for the name of our humble communications consultancy last year.

I first read “Ulysses” as a kind of protest. It was 1994, and I was a reporter at the Springfield Union-News. I covered the police beat four nights a week.

The cops in town had been feuding with the newspaper after a series of articles about the shooting of an unarmed black motorist by a white policeman. In particular, a story about a party the police had thrown for the officer, who had been placed on a paid leave of absence while the shooting was being investigated.

The night cop reporter’s job had usually involved checking in at the police station, reviewing the arrest book, following up on any bigger news items, and filing stories before the paper’s midnight deadline. Given the discord between the paper and the police, however, I would often find myself sitting in the dimly lit lobby of the police station for hours at a time, waiting for the arrest log. Often, the police would claim to have forgotten I was waiting.

And so, I purchased “Ulysses,” the thickest book I could lay my hands on.

Did I read it out of literary curiosity? Partly. Did I want to be able to tell people I’d read “Ulysses?” Maybe. Did I hope the cops saw that I was reading a massive book while they tried to freeze me out from doing my job? Unquestionably.

My waits became delightful respites. The novel was not what I had expected. It shifted styles constantly. One chapter would be typically early 20th Century, hard-to-penetrate prose. Another would be a parody. Still another would be an uninterrupted river of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry that seemed to articulate the flow of my very own mind. My thought process, something I of course felt was uniquely mine, was there poured out on the page, thoughtful, painful, at times funny. I laughed out loud, echoes reverberating in the capacious police lobby.

As time wore on the book became less a symbol of my resoluteness and more of a joyful distraction. One night, three months and about three-quarters of the way through, a senior copyeditor spotted me in the newspaper’s break room eating my dinner, the book in hand.

— Have you read the final passage yet?
— No.
He outstretched his hand for the book. I handed it to him and he flipped to the backpages.
— May I?
— Sure.
He stood upright, cleared his throat and proceeded to read six or so lines from the final paragraph, a paragraph that stretches for page after page, ending triumphantly
— “…and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

I was blown away.

* * *

I am often asked why Orangefiery, and I do wish I had a shorter answer. It’s a word that, as far as I know, Joyce invented – one in a lexicon of more than 30,000 words used in “Ulysses.” It appears in a paragraph to do with communication between two characters, in the Cyclops passage, which is close enough to our domain of work. (“Communication was effected through the pituitary body and also by means of the orangefiery and scarlet rays emanating from the sacral region and solar plexus.”) I could have chosen hundreds of other words from the book, or from somewhere else, but I liked this one. It’s familiar, but different. It’s more interesting to me than Kuczkowski Associates or Partners or Group or Consulting. My kids like it. And, happily, the domain name was available.

* * *

I’ve been reading Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” In it, Birmingham chronicles the publication history of Ulysses, which was banned in the United States for obscenity from 1922 to 1934.

It’s an amazing story. Prior to reading Birmingham’s book, I always judged Ulysses by its content. I could see what would have been regarded as obscene, of course, but I never quite grasped why it would ever have been banned, or what was so remarkable about it. So much music, film and literature in our modern world similarly conveys the inner thoughts and vices of its subjects, we’ve come to take it for granted in our art.

As Birmingham argues, the legal case against Ulysses, its success as an underground sensation, and ultimately the legal decision that it was, in fact, art and not pornography — helped reshape literature. It established new boundaries for what modernist literature could be. Or more correctly, what modernist literature could be published.

In the 1920s, vice squads patrolled bookstore shelves, ferreting out lewd publications. Books were banned. The entire attitude about obscenity seems counterintuitive from today’s perspective: If Joyce’s novel today seems descriptive of human thought processes, the fear of the 1920s was that it would inspire lewd thoughts among the innocent.

The institutions that supported censorship were surprising. The U.S. Postal Service did not just deliver the mail; it often sat in judgment of what was acceptable content. (For a decade, while Ulysses was banned in the U.S., the postal service intercepted published copies of the book in the mail and burned them. Unknown numbers of the first thousand copies of Ulysses were turned to ash by postal clerks.)

In 1920, while three New York judges were ruling on obscenity charges brought against the publishers of The Little Review, which had serialized chapters of Ulysses, Joyce was still revising the book. The case was lost, the women were fined $100 and the book was banned, even prior to its publication. A decade later, in a decision that is reprinted in my copy of “Ulysses,” Judge John Woolsey declared that he had read “Ulysses” and “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.” The book was permitted to be sold openly in the United States.

The mechanics of publishing play a larger role in the history of Ulysses than I’d realized. Literally dozens of printers refused to print the book, because of its reputation. It’s staggering to consider, particularly from the vantage point of our digital age. I will cut and past this blog into a WordPress theme and click on a button that says “Publish.” In the 1920s, it was a far more complex task. Sylvia Beach, the courageous American in Paris and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who ultimately published Joyce’s first edition in 1922 had to scour the French countryside for a printer willing to put Joyce’s words on paper.

And as with so many histories, we can see the antecedents of modernity. Birmingham’s description of Beach’s efforts to market the book bear a remarkable resemblance to a Kickstarter campaign. Beach had flyers drawn up (“ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in ‘The Little Review’ will be published by ‘SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY’ complete as written). Prices were fixed, far above market rates. The first 100 buyers were promised copies signed by the author. A thousand copies were quickly purchased, prior to printing.

Finally, the “influencers” of Ulysses were Joyce’s fellow scribes. WB Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and many others acquired copies of the book. They bought it, read it, talked about it. Many wrote reviews, some glowing, some critical. T.S. Elliot wrote Ulysses was “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”

Think about that, it’s an immense statement.

And there it is. Ulysses, both personally and historically, is all about change. Change centered on expression. Change that is about communication. And art. And connection.

* * *

This weekend, in anticipation of Bloomsday, The New York Times Book Review published two pieces asking the question “How would Ulysses be received today?”

Charles McGrath, a former editor of the Book Review, said that Ulysses ‘seems pretty tame’ by today’s standards, and that it was remarkable for the range of styles and techniques it employed. Rivka Galchen, a writer unknown to me who holds a number of literary awards, reviews the reviews of Ulysses on Amazon, noting that none of them describe Ulysses as obscene. Ultimately, she suggests reading the book yourself, which I would also recommend.

I’m no literary critic. My experience with Ulysses was and is personal. But, I happen to think The Book Review asked the wrong question. The question we can all learn lessons from is actually about how Ulysses was received in its day.

Ulysses is without question an imperfect book. It’s not for everyone, and even for those who love it, it has its boring parts.

But Ulysses is not best understood as just a book. It is not merely a chronicle of one man’s journey through Dublin. Ulysses, in both its creation and its publication, was an act of courage.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, Ulysses made a dent in the universe.