Michael Otterson is managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; as such he heads the public affairs activities of the Church worldwide. He graciously agreed to be interviewed for BCC.
BCC: The LDS Public Affairs Department is a crucial arm of the Church, as it bears the bulk of the responsibility for the interface between the church and the media. I’m curious about the day-to-day operations and mechanics of the department. How many people do you work with? Does the Church regularly engage outside PR firms?
Otterson: A few dozen staff work at Church headquarters and in addition we have 13 offices throughout the world that work as part of the support staff for Area Presidencies. We also contract outside counsel from a public relations firm to help handle periods of overload. There is always plenty of work to do. During the past several years interest in the Church has continually increased. That includes the news media but it is by no means confined to that. We are not just waiting for the phone to ring. We are also engaged in proactively building relationships and understanding with those who share our point of view, and with those who don’t.
BCC: More and more members receive their news about the Church, including the Church’s view on current issues, from the LDS Newsroom. Is this part of LDS Public Affairs’ mission? Is the LDS Newsroom a doctrinal resource? How do you ensure that the messages you provide interface with the other departments of the Church, specifically Correlation?
Otterson: Newsroom.lds.org is an official resource for news and information from the Church. It’s primary audience is the news media and opinion leaders, which also includes bloggers and others using new media. It’s also an excellent resource for Church members to find official information explaining the Church’s involvement in the public arena. While stories, commentaries and backgrounders on Newsroom may contain doctrine, its purpose is not to expound doctrine. Where Newsroom content touches upon doctrine, the purpose is to explain it in a way that those unfamiliar with Mormon terminology and doctrine will understand it. There are also times when a doctrinal principle impacts the Church’s stance on a public issue and the stance needs to be explained in light of that doctrine. There are better, more comprehensive doctrinal resources for Church members to access in general, such as the LDS.org gospel library. All content on the Newsroom site is reviewed by Correlation, and we’re happy with that because it reduces the risk of mistakes.
We think of Newsroom as a resource for what I call “Church watchers” – those outside the Church such as media, government leaders and staffs, leaders of other churches, minorities and so on who find Latter-day Saints interesting or relevant for all sorts of reasons. But Church watchers is a term that also includes the educated public, and our own members too – especially those who like to follow current events and understand how the Church interacts with the community.
BCC: What’s your view on how professional public relations affect our missionary work? Some assert that embracing ecumenical approaches may negatively affect Church growth – do you agree?
Otterson: Certainly we hope that an accurate, educated public perception of the Church would positively affect not only missionary work but many other aspects of the Church’s work, including building chapels and interacting with the community on many levels. But the work of the Missionary and Public Affairs Departments, while complimentary and mutually supportive, are not the same. In Public Affairs efforts, we are not trying to persuade people to our point of view as much as making sure, as far as possible, that people understand who we are and what we stand for.
“Ecumenical” is a term that is hardly ever used in the Church because it has come to suggest discussions and compromises on doctrine. We prefer to call it interfaith outreach – willingness to engage with other faiths, Christian or otherwise, where we can join hands to make life better for the needy. So where there is outreach with other faiths, it is based primarily on common interests that will better society.
BCC: Much of the impetus for reaching out to non-members seems to be driven by missionary efforts or disaster relief efforts. What can individual members, families and wards do to better help the LDS Church with its PR efforts? And what is the best mindset/approach to take in such efforts?
Otterson: Stated scripturally, Church members can be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
The cumulative effect of Church members who strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ in their daily living and interaction with their communities is the most powerful reputation-building effort the Church has. That ought to happen because it’s the right thing to do, not because we are trying to manufacture some image for public consumption. I have never personally liked the word “image” because it tends to suggest “spin” rather than sincerity or reality. Church members can also refer to Newsroom.lds.org to become better informed about the Church’s role in the public sphere and to gain insights in how to better communicate the Church’s positions to friends and neighbors both in person and in the digital world.
BCC: What is your take on the broad accessibility of ‘new media’ such as bloggers, etc.? Do you cringe when you see a top Google search on a Church issue is not at LDS.org, but some rank amateur blogging from his basement?
Otterson: There’s no question that new media is changing the way people get their information. We don’t expect most people to view only an official Church website when searching for information about the faith. Some people will go to the official source, and we hope they do, but most rely more on third-party, neutral sites to help them form opinions about an organization or an issue. If they are influenced by an accurate, nonofficial site, then the result is the same. While new media has created challenges for every organization, it also creates great opportunities. For example, Church members are enthusiastic about discussing and sharing their faith with others and new media gives them a medium to do that. It also gives Church members a better opportunity to respond to inaccuracies perpetuated about their faith in the news media. We find that individuals who personally know members of the Church generally have a very positive opinion of them. New media allows people to come to better know Latter-day Saints. The challenge is in the speed at which information (and often rumor) travels. The Church, like all organizations, has to adapt both to that speed and to the access each individual now has. Do we cringe when we see unofficial voices? Absolutely not. Do we recognize that we have to do better and better to make our voice heard and be recognized as a valuable resource? Yes.
BCC: Recently an internet video featuring Rachel Esplin became a viral hit for people looking to learn more about the Church. There seem to be more and more of these opportunities for everyday members to speak to an immensely broad audience. What advice would you give to a person that finds herself or himself suddenly asked to be the public face on the Church?
Otterson: About a year ago Church Public Affairs published a set of guidelines to help members do this. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, who oversees Public Affairs, is on record more than once as encouraging members to engage on the Internet. The most important thing is for members to make it clear they are expressing their personal opinion and not speaking officially for the Church. It’s also important to speak in terms and language that those unfamiliar with the faith will understand, so that doctrines and practices are presented simply and in context. Rachel Esplin did a fine job in doing just that, as do many others.
Thanks again to LDS Public Affairs and to Bro. Otterson for taking the time for this interview.