ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: PR has essential role in advancing Mormon mission

From the Salt Lake City Olympics to its missionaries, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' commitment to PR has facilitated greater understanding from a variety of observers.

From the Salt Lake City Olympics to its missionaries, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' commitment to PR has facilitated greater understanding from a variety of observers.

In early March, the recovery of kidnapped Salt Lake City teenager Elizabeth Smart kicked off a media frenzy, with the spotlight quickly turning to her abductor, drifter Brian David Mitchell, who considered himself a prophet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints certainly didn't, having formally excommunicated him years ago. And media reports were quick to note that Mitchell's beliefs and street teachings (including practicing polygamy) were contrary to those held by the Church. "It was refreshing to have [the media] understand," recalls Kim Farah, senior manager of PR for the Church. "They understand our doctrine better, and are very responsible in pointing out that these people don't have anything to do with the Church now." So is it safe to conclude, then, that the media understands the Christian belief system of the Church and its 11 million members? Well, it was a start. But it's a recent turn, due in large part to a commitment to communications made by current Church president Gordon Hinckley, 93, who was a journalist in his younger years. "The Church is much more open and communicative than it's ever been before," claims Bruce Olsen, managing director of public affairs for the Church (his department spans 19 geographical regions around the world, and has nearly 60 staffers). "His openness has set the tone for us worldwide." Olympic effort The opportunity to spread the wings of Hinckley's mandate presented itself in the form of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. "The Games always zero in on the host area's history and culture," explains Olsen. "How do we tell our story, and not overdo it? There were times before the Olympics when we got a bit beaten up because [the media] didn't understand." Case in point was a feature that ran in The New Yorker the month before the Games. While the story highlighted the Church's successes and virtues, it largely explored the Mormons' troubled past, and even attacked the historical feasibility of its origins. "People, for whatever reason, probably have an easier time thinking about miracles, angels, and the voice of God booming out of the clouds thousands of years ago in a faraway land than they have thinking about it in the woods in New York 170 years ago," explains Jeffrey Sheler, who covers religion for US News & World Report. "But the belief system has always been open to scrutiny. It's not that it's a phenomenon of 21st-century American news media." Nevertheless, in the months leading up to the Olympics, the Church established its own media center near Temple Square in Salt Lake City. It was separate from the main Olympic media center, and it offered everything from information on the Church's history and culture to 100 different prepackaged story ideas. By the Games' end, more than 1,300 journalists from around the world had visited the center. At the media center, journalists were exposed to the three areas of primary importance to Olsen and his department, not to mention the Church's efforts as a whole: attracting new members and better serving current ones; missionary and local community support; and genealogy (or "uniting families," as the Church calls it). Each is not only central to the Church's beliefs, but vital to its growth and acceptance. In the presentation of the Olympics, the Church's efforts to help Saints (as members are called) feel good about their membership were apparent. This ranged from simply offering parking space to spectators, to loaning the venue for the medal ceremonies, which was positioned such that the Temple could be seen in the background. The Church's far-extending reach But this was merely symbolic of the Church's reach to all corners of the world. Not only do members fast one Sunday a month, and give the money that they would have spent on food to those in need, but the Church runs a number of humanitarian efforts around the world. One program helps immigrants trying to get established in the US by not only teaching them English, but employing them in the "sort center," where clothes donated by members are sorted, washed, and packaged for delivery to countries in need. The Church also engages in hunger-relief efforts in Africa that stem from Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, a production and services center. Welfare Square is also where members can get foodstuffs and other items if they are out of work or need aid - so long as they work to the best of their ability for what they receive. "It's not a dole," explains Olsen, "but they feel like they can maintain their self-respect and help someone else get on their feet, or help other people." This program is so successful, he claims, it has even received the attention of the government as it examines ways to reform welfare. Of course, the other extremely successful Church venture - one that most are familiar with having seen young men wearing white shirts adorned with name tags and dark neckties - is its missionary program. Currently, there are 60,000 Mormon missionaries serving in 162 countries, and the public affairs staff does its best to make sure residents are aware of the Church in areas where missionaries proselytize. In England, for example, the Church let the BBC attach a hidden camera to a missionary as he went door to door in London, documenting the reactions he got. And as the Mormon population grows in a particular area, and it comes time to build a temple (there are currently 137 temples around the world, which are different from wards, where members and non-members alike are welcome; temples are sacred, and are open only to members), the Church's public affairs department explains the importance of the structures to the local community. "We must work very hard so people can understand why they're so important and sacred to us," says Olsen. "We feel so strongly about family history" - temples are where Mormon marriages take place - "because we believe families can be forever." Which is where the famous focus on genealogy comes in. Mormons believe that family is eternal, so when a person becomes baptized, he or she can be baptized again, at a later date, for ancestors who were never presented with the opportunity. So to find who these ancestors are, the Church has compiled the largest genealogical database in the world, and has made it available at its 4,000 "family history centers" to anyone curious about his or her lineage. This is advantageous from a PR standpoint, considering that genealogy is one of the most popular American hobbies. One of the most unique PR opportunities arose in 1989, when a Church member discovered the Freedman's Bank records, which detail the lineage of millions of African Americans living today. In 2001, when the research was complete, "we decided it wasn't our story to tell, it was African Americans' story to tell," says Farah. So the Church joined with African-American community leaders in a dozen different areas, and helped each craft custom-made messages for their particular communities. This past October, when 50 million names from the records were entered into the database, the Church held a news conference in Salt Lake City, and reached out simultaneously to 24 different areas across the US and Canada, with press information specifically tailored to each area. "It was a unique way to do PR from a central location," recalls Olsen. Welcoming scrutiny All this has helped bring skepticism and scrutiny closer to the same level as that experienced by any other organized religion, Christian and non-Christian alike. But such questions also seem to have worked to the Church's advantage over time. "The fact that their belief system is clearly out of the mainstream of Christianity, that begs to be examined," says Sheler. "Why is that? What sets it apart? And the Church, frankly, likes that scrutiny. That's always been one of their selling points" - which Latter-day Saints clearly have in abundance. ----- PR contacts Managing director, public affairs Bruce Olsen Director, media relations Michael Otterson Director, opinion-maker relations Val Edwards Director, crisis management Mark Tuttle Director, international and public affairs T. LaMar Sleight Regional directors Scott Trotter (North America Northeast, South America West), Gabrielle Sirtl (Europe central, Africa West), Bryan Grant (Europe West, Africa Southeast), Alan Wakely (Asia North, Australia, New Zealand), Ana Lenore Pilobello (Philippines), Fernando Assis (Brazil, South America South), Keith Atkinson (Chile, North America West)

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