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Mormon Media Observer: Mormon Media Studies symposium discusses PR challenges

Published: Sunday, Nov. 14 2010 6:18 p.m. MST

If someone came to you and asked you how to run the LDS Church's public relations outreach, what would you advise those who make such powerful decisions to do? 

Would you emphasize the good works that Latter-day Saints do while downplaying doctrinal difference to avoid misunderstanding and strife?

Or instead of leaving the doctrine to the missionaries, would you go on the offensive, pointing out anomalies in other faiths in a way that showed the strength of your religious position?

How would you use the Book of Mormon? Would you call them to repentance, as the Book of Mormon often seems to do?

Would you be defensive about your faith, holding back publicly and then responding to attacks only when they came? 

Would you ignore mean-spirited public attacks on the church, forgive seven times seventy and move on?

For a church that claims a mandate to spread its gospel to the world, these questions are of no small import, and the answers likely differ depending on the circumstances.

These questions are part of the subtext of this week's terrific Mormon Media Studies symposium at BYU. The keynote speech by the University of Richmond's Terryl Givens and other presenters provided insight into this powerful issue.

An insight I gleaned from his presentation is that when Latter-day Saints provided effective rebuttals, say, to the argument that Joseph Smith is a fraud — and they do — they are arguing on the turf their opponents set out. You see this today in the argument about whether Mormons are Christian or not. It seems to be a debate that can need engagement, but it is a debate set on the terms by others who are not Mormon.

How do you engage in the public dialogue and set the agenda? One way is to focus on the things that make Mormonism distinctive as a way to create conversation that drives the discussion, keeping church opponents talking about what Latter-day Saints wish to be talking about —say the Book of Mormon or eternal marriage.

Beyond Givens' speech, what stood out in this conference is how the church has responded to its public relations challenges over the years and continues to do so today.

BYU scholar Ed Adams studied the public relations efforts of President Heber J. Grant in the years just following World War II. In the decades before Grant became president, the church faced extensive anti-Mormon press and politics. The most famous of these may be the series of anti-Mormon exposes in the muckraking magazines of the era, including Alfred Henry Louis' dark series called "The Viper on the Hearth" in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Adams argued that President Grant followed classic public relations principles in building the church — in an era when the professional practice of public relations was just emerging. For example, President Grant was willing to meet with writers and was witty and avuncular in his approach. A kind, warm caricature of a golf-playing prophet emerged that helped the church at the time.

The church also took advantage of many opportunities that emerged in the culture at the time — including many stories that had Utah ties and brought reporters to Utah.

Similarly, Susan Easton Black's work shows the history of Mormon newspapers that were, in part, efforts at public relations before there ever was a professional practice of it. Her new book of Erastus Snow's newspaper, "The St. Louis Luminary," is an example of the period.

In 1852, not long after the church began settling in Utah, it sent some of its most important leaders, including Snow, to major metropolitan areas to speak up in behalf of the church and to build up the Saints wherever they were. These apostles — John Taylor in New York, Orson Pratt in Washington D.C. and George Q. Cannon in San Francisco — became important advocates for their cause in some of the church's darkest hours. Snow's was just one effort at public relations and the press.

The writers at the symposium took different approaches to the question of how Mormons should tell their story, but all demonstrated the remarkable effort that continues today.  

In the end, with another Mitt Romney campaign coming up and tickets going on sale for a new Broadway musical from the creators of South Park called "The Book of Mormon," the question of how Latter-day Saints should present their church to outsiders through public relations efforts will continue to fascinate.

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