Mormon Media Observer: Mormons' online success seen in Elizabeth Smart and AOL story responses

Published: Monday, Nov. 22 2010 6:00 a.m. MST

In the message board that followed a CNN belief blog news article about Elizabeth Smart's mission, a woman calling herself Donna asked about Mormon temple worthiness.
Within half an hour, five Mormons had responded to the question.
Later that evening, a sixth person, a woman calling herself Erica, wrote six paragraphs of her personal journey to repentance that led to a temple marriage. Erica described her confessions and her repentance and her marriage to a young returned missionary in the temple. She said, "We are incredibly, incredibly happy. So, you see, even those of us who are used material have equal worth and potential in the eyes of God."

Erica's story moved me, and I am glad I read it.

Perhaps it was the unusual attention the church received following Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign and the debate over California's Proposition 8. Perhaps it was Elder M. Russell Ballard's talks at BYU-Hawaii and BYU-Idaho encouraging the members of the church to use new media to spread the church's message. Perhaps it was smart application of technology by church officials, or perhaps it was all three, but the LDS Church and its members seem to be quietly making progress in their efforts to defend and promote their faith online.

Three recent cases bear that out.

Church spokesman Michael Otterson showcased two of those examples of how this is happening during a presentation at the recent Mormon Media Studies Symposium. Otterson used the CNN Belief Blog as one example. The story received more than 1,000 comments, including Erica's, many from Latter-day Saints, explaining how much they loved their missions.

His second recent example of the quiet power of Latter-day Saints online occurred following AOL news contributor Emily Troutman's recent article that an LDS Church building in Haiti sat nearly empty while thousands of poor Haitians huddled in squalor outside following the disasters there. Her first paragraph said, "If you're local, and homeless, you needn't have bothered coming here for help. Help is for Mormons only."

Church officials faced a dilemma. Should they provide context for the story, thereby raising the article's profile online, or should they ignore it. Sensing that news articles have a long life online, church officials responded with a blog post at the LDS Newsroom.

Their post pointed out that the situation was an anomaly; other LDS buildings were packed with homeless individuals, and this one building was being used by government officials for logistics, and there was confusion over whether it could be a shelter as well. The point was simple: Troutman failed to get complete context.

More than 300 people have commented on Troutman's article, including some Mormons correcting her record, creating some long-term sense of balance to the story.

In fairness to Troutman, she tried to get comments from church officials. Her mistake seemed to be in not understanding with whom she should speak. There are powerful logistical and emotional challenges to reporting from a place like Haiti in the midst of tragedy, and that needs some understanding from her readers.

So she deserves some slack for her story. Her passion about helping the poor in Haiti is worthy of notice and admiration. Many journalism outfits leave places quickly after tragedy strikes and move onto the next hot story. While it is true that she should have sourced her story more fairly, Troutman's effort to provide ongoing reporting from this poor country on the long-term efforts to rebuild is laudable. (For what it is worth, I tried to reach out to Troutman via e-mail to get her response to the criticism of her story, and I received no response.)

CNN's Belief Blog and the AOL news story aren't the only recent examples.

A third example occurred at an unexpected venue. At the Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago on Oct. 19, keynote speaker Avinash Kaushik, an author and blogger whose title is analytics evangelist, raised a few eyebrows when he said that the Mormon church knows how to get its message out through a process called search engine optimization (SEO).

Kaushik noted that if you type the word "church" into the search engine Google, the LDS Church comes up before any other church. (LDS.org was third in my search, behind a pair of Wikipedia listings, but the point is clear about Mormon prominence online. LDS.org was the first church website listed.)

Mormons come ahead of Catholics and Muslims and Protestants as churches in this search. This is remarkable, considering the relative size of the church.

In preparation for his address, Kaushik used a visualized tag cloud to examine hundreds of words the church uses on its website, and he contrasted that with the tag cloud of the electronic device BlackBerry and with Chase bank.

While those two businesses struggled with their overall messages as he evaluated them, the LDS Church, Kaushik told an interviewer, did a very good job in tying Mormonism into words and concepts that the church would wish to have associated with it. The church is skilled at deep levels of search engine optimization, he said. Now, there are reasons to not overstate Kaushiks conclusions, but his point is relevant here.

Mormons seem to be promoting and defending their faith online in growing numbers and with growing success. These recent cases seem examples of a quiet movement gaining momentum.

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