“Media Spotlight Shines on Church,” Ensign, May 2002, 110–11
Despite its emphasis on taking a low profile during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, the Church became an inevitable media focal point when 10,000 media visitors descended on Salt Lake City. The Church was the subject of many thousands of Olympic-related articles and broadcasts, the vast majority of which were positive and fair, reports the Church Public Affairs Department.
While President Gordon B. Hinckley made it clear that the Church was taking nothing more than a supportive role in the Olympics, efforts were made to accommodate media who came to Church headquarters looking for stories. A temporary News Resource Center was created in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. From here Public Affairs officials and hundreds of volunteers took more than 2,000 media phone calls and assisted more than 1,300 walk-in visitors. The staff set up interviews with General Authorities and other Church representatives, arranged tours of Church sites such as Welfare Square and Temple Square, and provided interpretation in any language requested. Packets of information on everything from the Family History Library to common myths about the Church were available in several languages. Also available for media use were computers on which the media portion of the Church’s Web site was translated into 12 languages.
Of such efforts, one French newspaper reported, “In matters of [public relations], the Mormons are already wearing the gold medal” (Le Monde, 31 Jan. 2002). Church media relations director Michael R. Otterson added, “I believe the image of Latter-day Saints has dramatically shifted since media coverage of the Olympics.” Following are just a few excerpts from the thousands of articles that appeared worldwide:
“The church’s contribution turned into a plus after years of fear that these would be the Mormon Games. [International Olympic Committee President Jacques] Rogge said Mormon influence was ‘absolutely invisible,’ but he noted the indirect contribution the church’s missions had made in helping welcome the world. Many volunteers were former missionaries whose time in a foreign country had given them language skills” (Chicago Tribune, 25 Feb. 2002).
“In merely 150 years, the Latter Day Saints have grown from the ecstatic visions of the 14-year-old Joseph Smith in the woods of upstate New York into a … U.S. global church, claiming a worldwide membership of 11 million. It is without a doubt the most successful religious group ever started in the North Americas” (The Ottawa Citizen, 3 Feb. 2002).
“If there is any single impression that the Mormon leadership would like to leave on their international visitors, it is that a religion with a reputation as an American upstart has matured into a global faith. One-third of the 60,000 missionaries knocking on doors for the church are foreigners, and not all are evangelizing their own countrymen. Spaniards proselytize in Tokyo, Brazilians in Lagos and Filipinos in New Zealand” (New York Times, 26 Jan. 2002).
“I suspect strongly that the clean little secret of Salt Lake City, Utah, … is not anything that should seem extraordinary: It is simply the mix of a serious and upright religion, of families who foster and insist upon providing the highest levels of culture right along with the highest modern technology, and of generally sensible organizing and governing. In short, it is a modern mix of the old America” (syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, Washington Times, 16 Feb. 2002).
“[President Hinckley] radiates warmth, his words are soft and well chosen, but he speaks his convictions powerfully and persuasively. In spite of this, he knows how to make his conversation partner feel comfortable.
“As I leave the Church [Administration] Building, I encounter a woman beggar at the end of the steps. … Usually, with indifference, I pass such people by. But after a visit with President Hinckley there is nothing one can do but open his wallet and give the woman a dollar” (Von Horst Rademacher, Frankfurter Allgemeine [Germany], 7 Feb. 2002).
Volunteers in the News Resource Center said reporters’ preconceptions often changed after they learned more about the Church and met General Authorities and other Latter-day Saints. “Many of the media have reported that the Church is far different than they thought. For us volunteers that has been the most rewarding part,” said volunteer David Bresnahan. Don Jarvis, another volunteer, said the change seemed to take place when reporters and other visitors saw the Church in action and interacted with its members.
Perhaps one article from the London Evening Standard summed it up best: “Nobody knows yet who is going to win at these Games but it is already easy to imagine that, with their unconditional welcome and unprecedented global visibility, the Mormons cannot lose” (7 Feb. 2002).