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Photograph by Michael De Groote
Ron Wilson, senior manager of Internet and advertising in the LDS Church’s missionary department talked about Mormon.org and the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign on March 30 at Utah Valley University’s “Mormonism and the Internet” conference.

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

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 [email protected]

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."