“Wendell Ashton Called to Publishing Post,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 73–74
More than five years ago, Wendell J. Ashton was called by the First Presidency to organize and direct a new Church department that would communicate messages of the Church throughout the world of nonmembers. Now, on 1 January 1978, at age sixty-five, he will change assignments, taking over as publisher of the Deseret News and executive vice-president of the Church-owned Deseret News Publishing Company.
Brother Ashton’s replacement in the Public Communications Department will be Dr. Heber G. Wolsey, currently associate managing director of the department. (See accompanying article.)
What has happened during the five years that Wendell Ashton has handled the Church’s relations with the rest of the world?
“Our work has been to help bring the Church out of obscurity,” Brother Ashton says. “I remember that soon after the Public Communications Department was organized, I accompanied the Tabernacle Choir to Europe, where they would take part in the Area General Conference at Munich. Our plane stopped at Bangor, Maine, on the way, and two new stewardesses, New England girls, got on board.”
Because of the time zone changes, it was a short night—and through that night Brother Ashton and his wife visited with the stewardesses. “One of them said she could not recall ever hearing of Mormons—it might have been the name of a breakfast cereal, for all she knew. And the only thing the other one remembered about Mormons was that there was a choir in Salt Lake City.” Now, after five years of concentrated effort using every available medium, the situation has changed. “Now it would be hard to find anyone who had never heard of the Church—at least in the United States, Canada, and several European countries.”
What has made the difference?
There are approximately 1,200 Latter-day Saints around the world, many of them skilled professionals in news media work, who serve without pay in Church callings to work with local media, not only to help correct false impressions about the Church, but also to publicize the Latter-day Saint way of life as much as possible. Why seek publicity?
“When the missionaries knock on doors, we want people to immediately think, ‘Oh yes, the Mormons. They’re the ones who have family unity. They’re the ones who talk about preparedness. They’re the ones who help the needy among them without leaning on the government.’” If people immediately associate the word Mormon with a good, happy way of life, the missionaries’ work is that much easier.
The result of local public communications directors’ and coordinators’ work has been impressive both in breadth and depth. “In some countries the program has been far more successful than we had dared to expect,” says Brother Ashton. Just in the last few months, the media in Spain, Italy, and Great Britain have given tremendous coverage about the Mormons, most of it favorable. Documentaries on British television; coverage of President Kimball’s visit to Italy; great awareness of the Church in newly deregulated Spanish media—all were sparked by alert public communications representatives.
“And in the United States, fair and positive coverage has increased tremendously. Twenty clipping analysts have found that media mention of the Church has increased by four times in five years.” Brother Ashton smiled as he pointed out that the cost of that much newspaper space would be completely out of reach—if it had to be paid for as advertising. “And of course those articles are more effective than the equivalent amount of advertising could ever be.”
Other successful programs include the many new visitors centers, which have increasingly emphasized what the gospel can do for the individual and his family; the Homefront Campaign, which has been carrying messages of family love and unity on 90 percent of the United States’ television stations and 50 percent of the radio stations; and the television special “The Family and Other Living Things,” which in 1978 will be broadcast in one hundred major markets throughout the United States—compared to the fifty-four markets that saw it during its debut in 1976.
What is coming up in the future? “The Brethren have just approved creation of a whole new project—this time in a medium we haven’t touched before.” And what medium is that? “Magazines,” Brother Ashton said, and then humorously pointed to a reference to the Church in a recent book on religion in America. “So frugal, earnest, clean-living, moral, and upward-bound are most Mormons that theirs has come to be called the typical Reader’s Digest religion,” said the book. (Martin E. Marty, ed., Our Faiths, New York: Pillar Books, 1976, p. 219.)
“It just happens that Reader’s Digest provides the format and reaches the audience most appropriate for the Church’s first venture into national magazine coverage.” And so it is planned that in four issues of the Reader’s Digest in 1978 the Church will have a booklet-type insert in the magazine—paid-for advertising, but with a difference. “Can You Have a Happier Family Life?” the booklet asks, and then proceeds with statistics on the situation of the family today; a family strength self-quiz, with an analysis of what the reader’s answers mean; and an outline of ways that families can strengthen their love and unity.
“Forty million people will read copies of the American edition,” Brother Ashton pointed out, “and the German edition will reach another four million.” Also, the booklet will be available as a reprint: all as “a message from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons.”
And further expansion of the Public Communications Department will include new full-time public communications centers in Paris and Frankfurt, to join those already in operation in Salt Lake City, New York, London, and Toronto.
Brother Ashton has a long record of Church and civic service. A member of the Sunday School general board from 1937 to 1958, he has since served in many capacities: president of the Salt Lake East Mill Creek Stake; one of the original Regional Representatives of the Twelve; member of the original Adult Correlation Committee; and a member of the Church Leadership Committee.
At sixty-five, Brother Ashton is at an age that for decades has signaled retirement—a chance to relax. And yet he is moving from one successful assignment to a whole new challenge—managing all the operations of a major newspaper in the city where he got his first job as a cub reporter.
Retirement? Wendell J. Ashton just doesn’t seem to be the retiring kind.