The Blog

What the Pope and the President of Iran Have in Common

Both men, despite their obvious differences, have developed images as leaders driving change within their respective organisations without actually enacting any substantial policy adjustments.

While there are a host of traits Pope Francis and President Rouhani do not have in common, the two leaders, since their election in the last year, have pursued a similar strategy that has proved incredibly valuable in terms of their relationship building with the rest of the world. What is this commonality?

Both men, despite their obvious differences, have developed images as leaders driving change within their respective organisations without actually enacting any substantial policy adjustments. They have managed to do so by making u-turns from their predecessors' messaging and altering the means through which messages from their organisations are communicated.

The President

Since President Rouhani's election, Iran has continued to develop the capability to produce an atomic weapon, an ambition many western countries are trying hard to curb. In the last year, Iran has enriched three tonnes of uranium to 20 per cent and added thousands of nuclear centrifuges. But, if you have read any of the headlines from Rouhani's September attendance at the UN General Assembly meeting, you will notice that these facts are not winning the media's attention.

Rather, Rouhani's change in messaging is making many of the world's leaders hopeful and even willing to change their previous polices about negotiating with Iranian representatives, evident in President Obama's now infamous 15 minute call with Rouhani. Making an effort to communicate diplomatically in a way that hasn't been seen from an Iranian president in decades, President Rouhani has done the media rounds in the U.S. portraying himself to the U.S. public as a moderate leader.

This serves in contrast to the fiery speech made to the UN General Assembly just last year by former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he railed against the United States and the European Union, who he said "have entrusted themselves to the devil." While President Rouhani has not abandoned all of his predecessor's rhetoric, he has adopted a much more conciliatory tone towards those that have been treated over the past several decades as Iran's primary adversaries. There are even hints of a debate in the Iranian capital over abandoning the time-worn chant "Death to America."

The Pope

While the comparison may appear sacrilegious to some (and just might be!), it is worth taking a look at President Rouhani's communications strategy in conjunction with Pope Francis' to get an understanding of the universal potential for success in their approach. Under Pope Benedict XVI, it was hard to deny the Catholic Church's conservative image. One episode in particular that gained a significant amount of media attention was Pope Benedict's 2012 New Year's address in which he told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican that "pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman...this is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself."

Contrast this with the public image Pope Francis has shaped for himself in part through the interview he gave with La Republica and the press conference he held with the Vatican press core on his flight back from World Youth Day in Brazil. Since Pope Francis was elected this year, the official policies of the Vatican have not changed and he has not dared to even touch Church dogma, however, this is not the impression you would get from the stories coming out of the Vatican in recent months.

Sections from his interview with La Republica that have gotten special play in the press include statements such as, "proselytism is solemn nonsense" and "the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one's conscience." His willingness to engage with journalists asking difficult questions and interact freely and confidently with the media has certainly served to soften the Church's image and won the new Pope points with the Vatican press corps.

It may be a bit controversial to make any comparisons between these two heavily scrutinised figures. However, an awareness of their successful messaging overhaul and how the rest of the world is responding to them and interacting with their still unchanged policies is important for understanding these two organisations and their leaders. The comparison also provides just another example of how shifting a communications strategy can facilitate better diplomatic relationships, without needing to actually significantly alter the activities that may have kept closer relationships from forming in the past.