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Changing the Mormon image: Behind the scenes of LDS Church media efforts

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 2:55 p.m. MDT

Buddy Blankenfeld and Lyman Kirkland, both LDS Church public affairs department managers, and Ron Wilson, senior manager of Internet and advertising in the LDS Church’s missionary department talk about the efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to tell its story to the public and the media. The three spoke on March 30 at Utah Valley University’s “Mormonism and the Internet” conference.

Photograph by Michael De Groote

This is one of two articles from Utah Valley Universitys "Mormons and the Internet" conference held March 29-30. Read the other article, on "The Mormon Internet battleground."

OREM — The calls were strange, Buddy Blankenfeld said.

The 2008 raid on the FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas had many in the media confusing the LDS Church with the fundamentalist polygamist group.

"Members of the media identified them as Mormon, LDS or as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said Blankenfeld, an LDS Church Public Affairs Department manager.

Journalists called the department and asked questions that showed they didn't know there was a difference between the two churches. One even wanted photographs of the interior of the Salt Lake Temple — confusing it with the FLDS temple in Texas. "We saw a need to provide the media with information that presented a clear distinction between our church and Warren Jeffs' group," Blankenfeld said, adding that the church wanted to make the distinction without disparaging the FLDS church.

Videos were made showing ordinary Texas Mormons living their lives of faith. "Show who we were instead of who we were not," Blankenfeld said. An Associated Press article came out on June 26, 2008 talking about the church's PR campaign. "Nearly overnight journalists began accurately reporting and making the distinction between Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect and our faith," Blankenfeld said. "And those strange calls stopped."

Troubles in a Mormon moment

Blankenfeld told this story as part of his presentation during the second and final day of a conference on "Mormonism and the Internet" at Utah Valley University. It was just one instance of how LDS Church public affairs has responded to media challenges during the last few years.

The current so-called "Mormon moment" is another example. Blankenfeld said as a former television anchor in Salt Lake City at ABC 4, he has seen how changes in journalism are requiring reporters to do more work with less time for research. The LDS Newsroom website, at www.mormonnewsroom.org, tries to cater to time-pressed journalists. The Mormonism 101 article gives reporters an overview of faith and doctrine. Other features make official statements, news releases, statistics and leader biographies easy to find. It is, Blankenfeld said, "official, reliable information."

An evolving LDS Newsroom

Lyman Kirkland, also an LDS Church Public Affairs Department manager, told the audience of about 100 people plus people watching via the Internet about how the LDS Newsroom evolved over time — beginning in 2000 to help reporters writing about the then-upcoming Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Sports journalists were being sent to cover the Games, but also were being assigned to do side stories about the LDS Church. The website gave these journalists, many of whom knew little about Mormons, access to story ideas, photographs and more.

After the Olympics, in 2003, a new version of the LDS Newsroom launched. It focused more on press releases and official statements, Kirkland said.

Around 2004 or 2005, Kirkland said they began to have conversations about how to integrate and respond to the growth of social media. "There was a desire and an opportunity to be more conversational," he said, "and to give more context to public discussion about the church."

In 2006, the church posted long video interviews with Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Lance B. Wickman of the Quorums of the Seventy. The interviews went in depth over the church's stance on same sex attraction. It gave the church a chance to tell its own side of things. "A news story would have reduced that interview to a few quotes or sound bites," Kirkland said.

Shaping the conversation

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