What my hometown priest taught me about public relations

By Denise Rowell

This year, a cool new Irish pub is opening in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  What’s even cooler about an Irish pub in the ‘burg is the story of the man behind Conway’s Family Pub.

Father Tommy Conway was born in Galway, Ireland from a family of 13.  After becoming an ordained priest, his first assignment was to serve as associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Hattiesburg.  Thirty years later, Father Tommy is still proud to call Hattiesburg his home as lead pastor of St. Fabian’s Catholic Church.

We in Hattiesburg are the lucky ones.

To say that Father Tommy is a mover-and-a-shaker is an understatement.  For Tommy, every place is like Cheers; everybody knows him, and to know him is to love him.  He has a strong passion for helping the homeless.  When deadly tornadoes devastated Hattiesburg, he hit the streets, handing out food and water.  The Hattiesburg Junior Auxiliary named him Humanitarian of the Year. He was also honored with the Kindness in Action award from Fox23 News.

Those awards barely scratch the surface.

Although Father Tommy is well-known for his charity work, he is best known for just being an awesome dude.  The way he connects with those around him is truly a special gift.  Once you meet him, you’ll feel like you’ve known him your whole life within five minutes.  That charisma helped to land him the chaplain position for the University of Southern Mississippi’s football team.  He passionately served that role for five years.

Team Chaplain
Father Tommy Conway proudly served as chaplain of the University of Southern Mississippi’s football team. Photo by Steve Coleman

You can even find a Facebook page dedicated to bringing him back! (He’s also known in the national sports world as Brett Favre’s BFF!)

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So how on earth did a man from an Irish village become such a rock star here in America?  His story gives us some good lessons in public relations.

  1. Be authentic.  With Father Tommy, what you see is what you get.  If you come to him in need, he helps you because he genuinely cares.  The night my father passed away, he annointed him.  He held our hands, cried and prayed with us late into the night.  Then, came to our house early the next morning to spend even more time with us, and helped with funeral arrangements. When I lost my father-in-law last year, he was one of the first to pick up the phone.  Tommy’s compassion is real.
Candlelight Vigil
Father Tommy Conway and Reverend Jeff Clark lead a candlelight vigil after two Hattiesburg police officers are gunned down.
  1. Walk the walk. You won’t hear Father Tommy lecturing from the pulpit just to sit back and watch everyone else do the work.  He’s known for getting his hands dirty when someone is in need.

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  1. Know how to handle a crisis. When tornadoes struck Hattiesburg, he immediately took action.
  1. Build relationships (Preferably face to face). I should put a gold star by this one.  Father Tommy is a true member of the community.  You may see him at a Southern Miss Football game.  Or perhaps serving as a celebrity waiter for a fundraiser.  He doesn’t hide behind a computer to do his work.  Face-to-face relationships and networking are the most successful forms of communication.

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  1. Know your audience.  Many many years ago, Father Tommy started a program for younger adults/college students in Hattiesburg called Theology on Tap.  He was able to connect with a younger audience who may have questions about the Catholic faith.  He KNEW that particular audience would feel more comfortable in that setting.  Obviously, if he’s meeting with the Hattiesburg mayor, a bar setting may not be the most appropriate.  Father Tommy gets it.

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  1. Know when to lead, and know when to step back. Father Tommy knows he can’t do it all.  He’s an awesome delegator who has built trusting relationships with those around him.
  2. Embrace diversity and inclusion. You could be a rainbow-colored oompa-loompa, and Father Tommy would still be your BFF!
  3. Be media savvy!  Father Tommy is always a media hit…primarily for all of the reasons listed above!

 

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Conway’s Family Pub will open in the spring.  I cannot wait to break bread with my favorite priest!

P.S.  Hey TLC….You should really do a reality show on Father Tommy.  Just stick it somewhere between Cake Boss and Honey Boo Boo!  It will be a ratings smash!

P.S.S. The next up-and-coming “Father Tommy” is Father Chris Boutin from St. Dominic’s in Mobile, Alabama. He’s one to watch!

8 thoughts on “What my hometown priest taught me about public relations

Add yours

  1. Fr. Tommy is a prince of a man, I could tell you what he has done and is still doing for my daughter and her girls in their time of grief but it would take all night long.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was fortunate to meet Father Tommy his first year as a Priest at Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg.
    Ohhh the stories I could share but they don’t hold a candle to the great works and love Father Tommy shares. My life , my children and my sisters are better for knowing Father Tommy. Love and thank God daily for Tommy Conway

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Francis and I had the honor of photographing the first wedding he performed in Hattiesburg…think it was just a couple of days after he arrived…he embraced our community and I rarely find a person whose lives he has not touched in SOME way!! Can’t wait to drink a beer with him in the Pub!!

    Liked by 1 person

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