“Public Relations,” Church History Topics (2022)
“Public Relations,” Church History Topics
The Church was organized at a time when print journalism was growing rapidly in the United States, and perceptions of the Latter-day Saints were influenced by an often-antagonistic press.1 Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders recognized the need to convey accurate information about the Church to the public, and they often used newspapers to do so. The first major history of the Church, written under Joseph’s direction and first published serially in Church newspapers, was specifically undertaken “to disabuse the public mind” of false claims made about the Church and to deliver an accurate presentation of the Latter-day Saint experience.2
After Church members were forcefully expelled from Missouri, the Prophet wrote a letter from Liberty Jail encouraging the Saints to fulfill an “imperious duty” to inform the public by collecting and publishing accounts of all they had suffered.3 Even after their petitions for government aid failed, the Saints continued to publicize their Missouri experiences through accounts, articles, speeches, and tracts. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, as the Saints migrated to the American West, petitioned to make their territory a US state, and faced widespread opposition to plural marriage, Church leaders sought to improve the Church’s reputation through missionary work, printed works, word of mouth, and periodic meetings with influential people.
At the turn of the 20th century, industrial companies and other large establishments began to engage in new, more organized methods of informing the public. Organizations of all kinds employed professional promoters to develop public relations programs, events, and campaigns. Universities, retail stores, and churches all established public-facing information bureaus, visitors’ centers, and exhibits.4 In Salt Lake City, the Church opened the Bureau of Information on Temple Square in 1902 to distribute literature and answer visitors’ questions.5
As a missionary in Great Britain in the 1930s, Gordon B. Hinckley befriended several journalists, helping reduce hostility against the Church and showing a talent for public relations. Shortly after his return to Utah, Church leaders invited him to join the new Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee and assist in producing media products for use in missions. In 1935 he began enlisting media specialists to develop favorable interactions between the Church and the general public.6
Church leaders worked with public relations consultants beginning in the 1950s to attract positive press coverage of events like the Hill Cumorah Pageant and new releases of Tabernacle Choir recordings. In 1957, the Church hired public relations professionals and formed the Church Information Service, or CIS. This group’s objective was to distribute accurate information about Church activities that would be of interest to the general public.
Over the next decades the CIS, which became the Public Affairs Department in 1991, directed several successful efforts, including the Mormon Pavilion at World’s Fairs beginning in 1964, a series of radio and television messages about the family titled Homefront in the 1970s, and publicity initiatives such as the “I’m a Mormon” campaign in the 2010s. By the 1990s, the department coordinated the voluntary service of 3,500 public affairs directors in stakes and missions around the globe to provide press information on local activities. As the Church expanded internationally and multimedia technology proliferated in the 21st century, many public affairs functions, such as community and interfaith relations, media and messaging, and reputation management, were brought under the newly formed Church Communication Department. Today, public affairs professionals continue to develop public service announcements, position statements, and other online messaging on behalf of the Church.