Charlotte social media guru spearheads digital campaign for Pope Francis visit

Kathleen Hessert describes spearheading a social media campaign for Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit as “the most significant work” she’s done in her decades-long career.

The founder and chief executive officer of Charlotte-based Sports Media Challenge, Hessert is known for her sports media acumen, from launching Shaquille O’Neal on Twitter to advising Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly and his players on dealing with the media.

In June, Hessert’s team was charged with generating buzz around the pope’s visit to Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia, which ended Sunday. She had only returned the day before when I spoke with her at her office in South Charlotte Wednesday, and repeatedly referred to her head as being “foggy today.”

That’s understandable. Her team’s three-month campaign included creating hashtags specific to the papal visit as well as emojis, the cartoon-like symbols often used on social media. They followed social media conversations about the pope and coordinated dozens of volunteers across three cities and 15 college campuses.

The intent was to gather insight about what young people were saying about the pope in an effort to help the Catholic Church better connect with them.

Funded by a global Christian organization called Aleteia USA, Hessert and her team launched a campaign called “Pope is Hope” and generated and followed social media conversations using the hashtags #GoodIsWinning and #PopeIsHope on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Hessert’s team is still monitoring social media traffic even now that the visit is over, and that includes monitoring traffic about the pope’s visit with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, a topic Hessert declined to discuss further.

The digitally-savvy millennial generation is the largest living generation, and Hessert says the Church is starting to recognize the need to connect with them through digital efforts.

“It’s not like (Pope Francis) is super tech-oriented, but he appreciates the value of social and digital media. And he certainly doesn’t shy away from a selfie,” says Hessert, herself a member of St. Gabriel’s parish in Charlotte.

And no, she didn’t tweet for the pope while he was here. He has a newly revamped Vatican communications team to help him with that, Hessert says.

If during the visit you recognized any of the whimsical “pope emojis” on social media, you have Hessert’s team to thank. They launched the emojis, recently spoofed by the comedian Trevor Noah during his first time hosting the Daily Show on Comedy Central, about a week before similar emojis launched on Twitter when users included hashtags like #PopeInPhilly.

From researching social media during the pope’s January visit to the Philippines, Hessert learned that one of the most commonly used terms when talking about Pope Francis on social media was “smile.” As a result, most of the 52 pope emojis or 14 animated gifs the team launched depict the pope with a wide grin – whether he’s crowd surfing or eating a Philly Cheese Steak.

In just over two weeks, the team has recorded 92,300 pope emoji keyboard downloads and 845,000 pope emojis sent on every continent, Hessert says.

The team tracks that kind of data through a “social listening software” called Tracx. A startup called Swyft Media, which was started in 2012 in a Notre Dame dorm room, was the team Hessert roped in to create the emojis.

Spearheading the social media was Hessert’s on-the-ground “digital street team” of about 60, whom she describes as “a grassroots journalist team.” They followed the pope during his September trip across the three cities and multiple college campuses, working 24/7 in shifts for the last portion of the visit to digitally engage on what was happening in their respective cities.

“We weren’t going to be evangelizing and we weren’t going to be news reporters telling the events,” Hessert says. “We wanted to showcase his humanity and his humility through storytelling.”

Now, Hessert and her team are working to digest what they learned and put together a final case study and report to provide to Aleteia, the global Christian organization that sponsored the campaign and that will in turn hand it over to the Vatican.

“I firmly believe that if the church listens in a deep and consistent way to what people are saying on social and digital media, they can be more pastoral to the world, and more relevant,” Hessert says.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta