“Promoting Understanding in Our Communities,” Ensign, May 1995, 110–11
The Church’s public affairs efforts help people worldwide recognize the Church as an influence for good in their communities. To find out more about the Church’s public affairs activities, the Ensign spoke with Michael R. Otterson, director of area relations for the Church’s Public Affairs Department.
Question: Can you give us some background on the public affairs program throughout the stakes and regions of the Church?
Answer: The Church’s public affairs thrust in stakes and regions has grown rapidly in recent years and is increasingly recognized as a helpful tool for local priesthood leaders. It is well organized in most of North America, Europe, and the Pacific and is becoming better organized in Central America and South America. Progress also has been made in Asia. The most significant international development of public affairs has come in the past few years as area presidencies have become more directly involved. Each area now has a five-year public affairs plan that keeps public affairs focused and under priesthood direction.
The primary goal of public affairs efforts is to help people understand the Church better. When the Church is properly understood, its work is generally more effective. This applies to a missionary tracting in a rural area, to a representative of the Church seeking approval to build a chapel in a large city, to those seeking permission to microfilm genealogical records, or to those seeking official recognition for the Church to operate in a given area. When people have accurate information, they are less likely to be influenced by those who like to talk about what the Church is not.
Q: How is this aspect of the Church organized?
A: In almost all twenty-two geographical areas of the Church there is an area director of public affairs who is directly answerable to the area presidency. Most of these area directors are Church service workers, though a small number of them in major international media centers or key locations work full time for the Church.
They have two primary areas of responsibility. First, they are the Church’s liaison with the national and international media in their areas. They may also work to improve relationships with prominent government and community leaders. Second, they help train the public affairs directors at regional and stake levels in media and community relations.
Public affairs directors are trained to respond to media inquiries and to initiate media coverage of Church activities. Experience shows that the Church stands a much better chance of being accurately portrayed when it takes the initiative.
In regard to community relations, public affairs efforts often center on service. For all members, working side by side with members of other faiths in community service projects is a wonderful way to build bridges of understanding. Literally thousands of these activities take place every year throughout the Church. Members frequently report how their own sense of Christlike living has been enhanced by these service opportunities.
Q: What are the essential goals of the five-year plans?
A: All public affairs area plans aim to help people outside the Church understand the Church better, ensure that publicity is fair and accurate, and help build strong community relationships. Needs vary from area to area. What public affairs does in the western United States will not necessarily fit in Africa or Asia. Some area plans may focus on mass media while other plans may emphasize community relations. A plan tailored to an individual area’s needs allows adaption and keeps the efforts going in the direction an area presidency desires.
Q: Can you give examples of successful public affairs efforts?
A: One example that comes to mind arose from contacts with a Baptist pastor in Hollister, California. His ministry focuses on serving the homeless; hundreds of homeless people eat and sleep in his church building. When he appealed to local churches for help, Latter-day Saints were among those who responded. Local members still provide help in a variety of ways. The pastor, a fine man, admits he previously had negative impressions of Latter-day Saints. He now defends the Church simply because he came to know some of its members individually.
Q: How do public affairs people help generate positive publicity?
A: Public affairs workers are encouraged to recognize opportunities to publicize positive activities and events associated with the Church. Some workers come from a background in journalism or communications. In other cases, skills have to be taught. The media are generally quite receptive to public affairs efforts.
When articles appear that are inaccurate or otherwise unfavorable to the Church, it is usually because there has been little contact with the Church. But even negative stories can be turned into something positive. In Britain last year one of the London tabloids ran a sensational article about the Church’s family history work. The area director of public affairs wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, which decided that the newspaper would have to print a retraction. However, in consultation with the area presidency, the public affairs director wrote to the newspaper and indicated that a retraction was not required. Rather, we were interested in developing a better and closer relationship with the newspaper. A pleasant response from the editor was encouraging, with good prospects for the future.
Q: How can members help the Church’s public affairs efforts?
A: Recent surveys indicate the obscurity the Church continues to face in most places in the world. For example, only a third of the people in the United States, 12 percent of the people in France, and 47 percent of the people in England have ever been approached by Latter-day Saint missionaries. Only 13 percent of Americans say they know a fair amount about the Church, compared to 6 percent in England and only 4 percent in France.
The Lord told Joseph Smith in 1831, “Those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to … bring [the Church] forth out of obscurity and out of darkness” (D&C 1:30). All members of the Church are involved in that work; every member is a public relations representative of the Church. The way we act in public with our neighbors, friends, and anyone outside the Church will affect their attitude toward the Church and the restored gospel. The good we do in our communities can be quickly undone by the publicized missteps of even one member of the Church. Conversely, the good we are trying to do is reinforced tremendously if the community sees that Latter-day Saints live what they preach.