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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

The LDS Newsroom website was transforming from just being a resource for news media, to becoming an actual news source in itself. "And it is becoming that more and more," Kirkland said.

The latest version of the website launched in 2010. The focus shifted further towards conversation and context with more commentary added to the site.

Kirkland said the affect of the online efforts, for example, helped shape members' reaction to the 2009 episode of HBO's "Big Love" that showed dramatizations of the church's temple ceremonies.

The February 2011 official statement on "The Book of Mormon" musical on Broadway was short and widely quoted. "Millions have seen that statement," Kirkland said. "It helped to set the tone."

The newsroom blog, launched in 2007, gave another outlet to engage people at a different level. "These different layers of formality allow the flexibility to maneuver in a fast-paced media environment," Kirkland said.

That flexibility is also seen in LDS Newsroom's efforts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+.

Virtually nothing

The LDS Newsroom isn't the only place where the LDS Church has used the Internet to reach new audiences. The church's missionary department also uses the power of the web to affect how people perceive the church.

Ron Wilson, is the senior manager of Internet and advertising in the missionary department and manages the Mormon.org website and its outreach to those outside the LDS community. He told the UVU conference about the origins of the successful "I'm a Mormon" ads and videos.

A 2009 study showed that half of U.S. adults knew "virtually nothing" about Mormons, Wilson said.

"That wasn't surprising," he said.

But what was surprising were the statistics that showed that peoples' perceptions about Mormons changed dramatically if they personally knew a member of the LDS Church. "For us, that created the question, 'How do we give people the opportunity to know Mormons?'" Wilson said.

Getting to know 'I'm a Mormon'

This led to a redesign of Mormon.org, which had been created before the 2002 Olympics as an outreach to people who did not belong to the LDS Church. The original site focused on basic doctrines and beliefs. The new site would expand to focus on introducing people to members of the church and how they lived their lives.

That idea evolved into the "I'm a Mormon" campaign that features members of the church in television advertisements and in online videos.

But they were not interested in celebrities.

Research showed that people's ideas of whom Mormons were did not live up to who they really were, Wilson said after his presentation. "We needed to break through that barrier," he said.

The first "I'm a Mormon" ads focused on breaking that barrier — trying to shatter stereotypes by showing a longboard surfer and a Harley motorcycle fan. "We just showed the fact that they did these things and said, 'I'm a Mormon,'" Wilson said.

The campaign is now shifting beyond just breaking stereotypes and is telling unique stories about people with challenges. For example, one of the new ads shown for the first time at the conference looked at Denny Hancock and how he overcomes challenges that came from a brain injury he received when he was 4 years old.

People are found from across the church, Wilson said. Sometimes they are recommended by local church leaders. Anybody can recommend someone to be profiled by emailing ideas@Mormon.org.

Creating a story

The creation of the "I'm a Mormon" ads is simple from most production standards. A shooter visits the person — sometimes alone, sometimes with an assistant — and begins with a simple interview. In the interview, they look for the story arc that can carry the video.

Wilson said the people they approach to be in the ads often don't think they are interesting. "People don't understand," he said. "Everyone is interesting to someone else and can make a difference in someone else's life."

It is in their very ordinariness that the extraordinary can be found. "Not everybody is a Mitt Romney," Wilson said.

And Romney is often on reporters' minds when they ask about the timing of the campaign, Wilson said. But Romney's running for President had nothing to do with the "I'm a Mormon" ads. "It was in place long before that was announced," Wilson said. "(Romney's candidacy) is not in our focus. We do not measure it or think about it."

After the initial interview of a person for the "I'm a Mormon" ad, the shooter will use a small digital SLR camera to capture an on-camera interview and other footage. Wilson said the shooter might come back with six to seven hours-worth of raw footage — plenty of material for an editor to create a 3 minute Internet video or 60 second commercial.

Wilson said the ads have been successful in shaping dialogue about the church. Even comedian Stephen Colbert noted the ads on Comedy Central in Aug. 2011. "If you made it to the Colbert show," Wilson said with a smile, "you've arrived."

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com Twitter: @degroote Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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