Informing members timely – a PA function?

Last week a Belgian church member, with a long record of outstanding leadership service in the Church, put a link on his Facebook page. The link went to an article in a local newspaper, titled “Homosexuality kills more than smoking” (translated), reporting on the recent anti-gay outburst of Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby. With a short note next to the link, our Belgian brother indicated his approval of Wallace’s views. His Facebook has numerous church members and outsiders as friends.

I promptly sent the brother an email to express my concern for the misunderstanding this link could foster, as if he, and by implication the Mormon Church, sided with some of the extreme Christian right and their heartless rhetoric against gays. I explained that our church’s opposition to gay marriage does not justify any attacks on homosexual gender orientation as such. I referred to the instances where we have seen, over the past few years, some improvement of insights and attitudes in the church in the U.S. toward our gay brothers and sisters. I linked to Newsroom statements such as this one. I linked to articles about suicides among Mormon teens, caused by intolerance and bullying. I linked to the Deseret News report on Mormons building bridges, and more.

I quickly got an email back from him. He had immediately deleted the link to the Wallace article. He expressed his remorse for having given the impression of wanting to hurt people. But as vivid was his resentment for not having known earlier all the information I sent him. Apparently, in his unaltered view since several decades, the simple fact of being gay was something wrong and sinful. My information had totally changed his outlook. He wrote that he wished the local church leaders should be timely informed, in their own language, of these Newsroom statements and of initiatives such as Mormon building bridges, which drew hopeful light on sensitive issues. He lamented that he and his fellow members remained deprived of so much valuable information.

In theory such information is available to all who read English and follow the main sources. Even if only coming from Church controlled outlets, such as the Newsroom and Deseret News, the information at least broadens the perspective beyond Church magazines and is quickly available when needed. However, many Mormons abroad (including members in non-English wards in the U.S.) are not fluent in English. For some people in certain countries easy access to the internet is not evident either. For these members church information is usually limited to what appears in their local Liahona and, if internet is available, also on the official church website in their own language. These sources present only a fraction of newsworthy and helpful information. The selection of what appears on a non-English church website is made by some person along the line of authority, usually, as far as I know, by people from Public Affairs (PA) on area level, who then provide an already translated text to upload. Those locally responsible for PA in a certain country or region, or the webmaster of the local website, can also select and translate some material, but strictly controlled as to appropriateness.

It is telling that the various church websites in different languages only partially overlap in terms of news items presented. Some give more, some less, but very few seem to cater to challenging issues. The tendency is to choose success stories and news outside the controversial realm. Seldom does an assessment of particular needs of local members dictate the tempo and choice of articles. In some countries with a larger Mormon population, independent “Mormon” sources provide more information, but they may be viewed with suspicion – and sometimes rightfully so. Meanwhile the media and anti-Mormon sources are shooting from the hip whenever possible.

Some of our American readers, and Anglophone Mormons in general, will probably remark that the lack of timely and relevant information is also a problem in English-speaking wards where part of the members are unaware of items of interest that could create more context and alter perspectives. But at least the information is available in their language and is easy to point at when needed. Also the numerous Mormon blogs in English contribute to disseminating information and providing links. On the other hand, members who limit their church information strictly to the Ensign and perhaps Church News, and ignore the rest, may miss out on items of interest that could enrich and nuance their views. Also for these members the following remarks may be relevant.

The matter, in my opinion, raises a question as to the function of church Public Affairs toward members. Church PA has the resources and the translation facilities to quickly disseminate information worldwide. But this department seems mainly geared at informing outsiders and at enhancing the image of the Church in the media, not at assessing the information needs of members. In foreign countries these members are, for the most part, converts, often unfamiliar with broader perspectives and with the larger context. Some months ago, a Belgian member told me that he heard the church now has a great musical on Broadway about the Book of Mormon. He asked if it would be possible to bring it to Belgium. To avoid such confusion, couldn’t PA timely inform members of situations and events that are prime news for Mormons? Couldn’t PA respond toward members with regard to negative items on Mormonism that local media spread? There are quite a few examples where candid information could prevent misunderstandings or provide timely clarifications: the Book of Mormon musical, the City Creek development, DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Mountain Meadow massacre, caffeine use, the controversy about holocaust victims’ baptisms (and also of deceased members of the Royal Dutch family, which recently caused an uproar in Dutch media), etc.

Some Belgian members email me regularly to ask questions about disturbing items they read or heard in the media. Each time I try to answer as well as possible, but I would suggest PA could do this pro-actively for all, worldwide, tailored to the needs and the context of members in their respective environments. I believe it is also an essential part of our retention concerns for we lose members because of lack of quick and adequate information.

So, is this a function for PA (or any other Church instance for that matter)? What controversial items do members struggle with, where church PA could be of significant help? To what extent is the situation in the U.S. and other Anglophone nations different or the same? Is the Mormon information stream better in some countries than in others? Do you know examples of independent (and constructive) Mormon information sources in other languages?

32 comments for “Informing members timely – a PA function?

  1. A first comment has been put in moderation because the commenter used a fake email address. Please respect the rules.

  2. I agree. The PA could be a useful tool for retention and could quickly settle controversial issues that don’t need to be controversial. Thanks for posting.

  3. Great post! Keeping members up to date on changing issues would prevent some of the weird statements that often go unchecked in ward classes and sacrament meeting talks–and that turn off thoughtful, well-informed members and nonmembers.

  4. One issue not mentioned above is the church’s stance on immigration. It’s obviously limited to just the U.S., but even though the church public affairs has issued several statements about it, most church members I’ve spoken to about it are entirely ignorant of the content of those statements.

    I do think the church should have a functioning and active public affairs website in each language, and maybe even for each country. But it won’t do much good unless members start paying attention to it.

  5. FWIW, a Brazilian brother has gone a long way to solving some of this issue for Brazil, by monitoring news on Mormonism in English and producing Portuguese-language news on his blog:

    I’m not sure he gets everything, but I think that if there were several of these it could help resolve a lot of this kind of problem.

  6. Tim (4), I’m fairly sure the Church DOES have public affairs websites in each language and even for each country — at least for the largest countries and languages (I’m fairly sure in cases where there are more than 50,000 members, but probably in many smaller places also. Portugal, for example, with about 35,000 members, does have a functioning and active public affairs website.)

    Now, I’m NOT saying that these sites do what Wilfried suggests. In fact, I’m sure they don’t. But they do exist.

  7. The church obviously knows the value of good clear communication. So why doesn’t this info get passed to members? Is it because someone isn’t fulfilling a calling properly? Because the church is making the statements to satisfy groups of people without actually wanting the views of members to change? Because not enough people care enough to pass it on and/or their personal views make the statements by Church PA unsavory?

    If the sites are in place (I assume Kent that these sites are controlled by the church?) then why don’t they pass on changes in position/policy by HQ? Someone somewhere must be making a conscious choice not to cover them and it would be interesting to know who that is and why they are making that choice.

  8. Some interesting things to weigh here:

    1. As has been pointed out, the effectiveness of PA is limited by the fact that even in the US, people don’t seem to notice/follow it. Immigration, political civility, and environmental care statements have been roundly ignored here.

    2. There is danger on the flip side; I have long been critical of the role that the Newsroom is taking in shaping doctrine/policy. There are some real dangers here. I can think of numerous examples over the years where the Newsroom has gotten well beyond what the Brethren have taught . . .

  9. Wilfried, you bring up good points, but Public Affairs is not the right body to deal with issues in internal communication. People who work in Public Affairs offices are focused on developing relationships with governmental and media figures to help the church’s relationship with the broader public, while internal communication gets routed through the stakes and wards.

    Those who would like to assist with translation projects can look at this site:

    I haven’t used it myself, and I have no idea what kinds of things are currently being translated there, but it’s one way that the church is addressing some of the translation problems brought up in the post.

  10. As I’ve mentioned to you before, Julie, Public Affairs employees I’ve spoken to are adamant that they never issue statements on important issues without explicit sign-off from general authorities. Apostles would probably notice if someone was issuing statements on behalf of the church that weren’t properly vetted.

  11. Excellent remarks, all. I agree that there are various issues involved.

    For foreign countries, the official church websites in various languages are a main conduit for information to both members and outsiders, including the media. The articles on these sites come, for a large part, through PA people on area and local level. They seem to make the selections, hence it is normal to look at PA for more and more adequate information. My post does not imply criticism of PA, but a search for possible expansion and improvement.

    The idea therefore is to 1) get more information out, and 2) to assess the information needs of members. The examples I gave (info on attitudes toward gays; the Book of Mormon musical) show where the flaws are.

  12. Communication is always a problem, whether on the macro level or the micro level. From the postings I see from my Facebook friends, I know many of them have no idea what the Church’s stand is on immigration, for example. And on the other end, there are many times when the first time I learn about helping someone in the ward move is when the EQ president thanks everyone for the help.

    When I was in another ward, a member of the stake presidency complained about the lack of participation in a stake event earlier that week. Most of us in the priesthood meeting had not even known about it. His response: It has been on the Stake Calendar for months. It never occurred to him that most of us did not have access to the Stake Calendar. This was before the church had local calendars on its website, and there was no other way for most of us to know about the Stake Calendar, or any events on it.

  13. Jonathan, I am sure they do assert that. But the work they produce suggests otherwise. And “signed off by GAs” is not what constitutes doctrine–you need a prophet for that.

    You only need to look at enormous repercussions of the recent statement on caffeine to see that the Newsroom is boldly going where no prophet has gone before.

  14. Tim (4) and Julie (9) brought up the valid remark that is one thing to make information available, but another to have people read and absorb it. I agree, but, of course, it should not become an argument to not provide information.

    There are a lot of members, not fluent in English, who are dependent on information the Church can quickly provide to counter disturbing information the media and anti-Mormons spread. Especially in this “Mormon moment” period, there is an upsurge of such disturbing information.

    Much depends therefore on context and topics. When writing my post I was thinking in particular about issues that have a high-current impact on confusion and disaffection. I agree that not all of our information will reach everyone, but at least we can provide an improved service helping many.

  15. Think about it, Julie. If someone in Public Affairs released a statement that an apostle disagreed with and felt strongly about, that employee would get canned pretty quickly. I don’t think I argued that news releases constitute doctrine. What they do constitute are statements that the apostles are comfortable having made in the name of the church right now. It is nearly impossible that a newsroom staffer is making up doctrine about caffeine or anything else without the relevant general authority signing off on it. The PA employees are certainly not going where no apostle has gone before.

  16. If the Church wants to make a statement without the members finding out about it, they do it through Public Affairs. I agree with Jax (#8): “[W]hy don’t they pass on changes in position/policy by HQ? Someone somewhere must be making a conscious choice not to cover them…”

    The “someone somewhere” are the people making the changes in position/policy in the first place–not the PA folks. If they thought it was important for members to be aware of this stuff, they would talk about it in conference; enough for people to pick up on a theme.

  17. “If someone in Public Affairs released a statement that an apostle disagreed with and felt strongly about, that employee would get canned pretty quickly.”

    Apparently, this doesn’t apply to BYU Religion Profs (see: Randy Bott), so I am not clear as to why it would apply to PA staff.

  18. Look, the problem is that the Church tries to communicate different messages to different audiences. Surprisingly, that often works fairly well, in part because mainstream LDS … well, don’t read much. If I had to grade the Church on its communications, I’d give it something like this:

    1. To media via LDS Public Affairs and the Newsroom: A-. Public Affairs is not the problem. Communications-wise, its the only thing the Church is really doing right. Maybe they should make an LDS Internal Affairs department to do for the members what PA does for the media.

    2. To local leaders, down through the hierarchy: C+. Messages get passed down, but privately and selectively, not publicly and systematically, and with no real archiving (so messages have a half-life of about two weeks). I think it is accurate to say the average blog reader knows more about what is going on in the Church than the average bishop.

    3. To local members, through the hierarchy and local leaders: C- (generously). The longer the chain, the more the message degrades. Letters from the First Presidency get read once from the pulpit, but are not archived and are not even accessible as text to members. Neither the Ensign, the Church News, nor General Conference communicate any real information on issues of the day in which members have real interest. These venues generally won’t even identify and discredit LDS folklore (think Randy Bott doctrine). Handbook 2 and its policy section is finally available to local members, a step in the right direction. But the Church still struggles to even give clear statements to the membership on simple things like whether caffeine is or is not covered under the Word of Wisdom (recent confusion) or whether you can or cannot speak publicly on political issues the Church has made a statement on (Prop 8, where there were public statements made that members could voice their own opinions on political issues, but credible reports indicate some of those who did so against Prop 8 were subject to discipline).

    So communication problems that foreign and non-English Saints have are just part of the overall communication problem the Church has.

  19. Quite helpful, Dave (19).

    As to Church websites in foreign countries in other languages, the information is not geared to a specific audience. I assume most or all foreign countries have no equivalent to the Newsroom, hence some Newsroom articles get posted on the local (national) church website. But not systematically: it seems to depends on the selections made at different levels. That’s why some useful items never make it there.

    Mormonnewsroom is not selective either as to its audience. The homepage says:

    “Whether you are a journalist, a blogger, a leader in another church, staff to a member of Congress or simply an interested observer, is a valuable — and official — resource providing news stories, commentary and insights about issues of public interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

  20. Great analysis, Dave (19).

    My belief is that the LDS leaders are aware of the communication problems but haven’t taken great strides to improve them for the following reasons:

    1. Church leaders like the church and its policy and doctrine to appear simple and easy to understand. Its interest is to persuade as many as possible to convert and for its membership to take action in the quickest way possible. It wants the members involved in action more than deep thought and analysis. It certainly tolerates the deep thinking members, but it doesn’t go out of its way to spur them toward deep thinking.

    2. The church, like many other religious organizations, rides on its claim to be eternal and unchanging. It will occasionally make clarifications and qualifications to a select audience, usually in the form of a seemingly minor change or clarification. But it fears that appearing to be in a state of continually tying up loose ends, making qualifications, or making outright policy changes, will give it an image of being incomplete at best or self-contradictory at worst, which will in turn weaken its thrust.

    3. The church relies on a core membership as its backbone. This core is generally unquestioning and extremely devoted. Yet it tends to see the world through a black and white lens and is uncomfortable with ambiguity. The church leadership doesn’t want to introduce ambiguity to its core for fear that it will weaken their devotion. It is paradoxical, however, that by making it more clear that caffeine is OK to drink or that what Randy Bott believes about blacks is not currently supported as doctrine, it could dispel a lot of the ambiguity that exists among its core.

  21. ” If they thought it was important for members to be aware of this stuff, they would talk about it in conference; enough for people to pick up on a theme.”

    Not necessarily. Much of it doesn’t apply to the worldwide church–for example, the stance on immigration is very U.S.-centric. Thus, not General Conference appropriate.

  22. It seems that most of the memebers are very conservative. The Church’s stance on immigration is relavent in most of the world. In Australia for example the conservative side of politics deamonises “boat people” and wants them turned back (many of the bouts sink and the people die). Most members would also agree with Jim Wallace.

    So yes we need to be aware of the softening of the church or newsroom because most members seem to see it as their church duty to be as far to the right politically as possible, and they are surprised when they find out for example that we no longer argue that being Gay is an evil choice.

    Where can th new statement on caffien be found?

  23. The rise of the Newsroom (due in part to the “Mormon moment”) as arbiter of doctrinal materials means that there are at least two sets of discourses the church is speaking through: GC and church magazine discourse (largely devotional/motivational), and then Newsroom discourse (attuned to contemporary issues, Qs about church doctrine, previous teachings, etc). I feel like the Church is leaning on the Newsroom to test not only how to talk to the media about “sensitive issues,” but how to talk to its members about the same. How are PA blog posts and press releases being received? What type of attention are they receiving from members? Are they striking the right tone? The question is whether these two discourses will continue to diverge (people no longer waiting for April/October to see if leaders will comment on [blank] event, but wait instead for the Newsroom response). I think they will for the time, until the church figures out how it wants to bring that Newsroom style discourse to church publications.

    The church has gotten really good at speaking to its members univocally. I think now it’s trying to figure out how to speak to different sections of its membership without splintering the whole.

  24. Julie (18),

    I think your point here depends on poor reasoning.

    The situation of someone whose job it is to teach religion who says things to the media which they never should have is very different than the person whose job it is to speak to the media and says things to the media they shouldn’t.

    So it isn’t difficult at all for me to imagine that someone in the first situation may not get fired for saying the wrong thing to the media and that someone in the second position would.

    Note: I’m not taking a position on your side-bar debate with Jonathan as to who is correct. I have no inside information on this.

  25. My first thought when seeing the title of this piece was that you were advocating an audible signal in the chapel for those “testimonies” that go on far too long or like at school for moving between classes!

  26. Back to the main issue, please.

    What do members who do not know English get as timely and helpful information on a number of issues? The background is that we lose members who do not get satisfactory answers to their questions (and also that investigators do not join for the same reason).

    I have been looking at a number of church websites in other languages. It’s getting worse than I thought. It seems the sites are being standardized to reflect the English website, plus superposed “I’m a Mormon” clips. The clarifying articles, such as can be found in the Newsroom, are disappearing. And they were already very few. What the local webmaster can add (apparently under strict control) is being limited to the typical good news reports on leader callings, youth conferences, a cultural event etc.

    It seems the Church wants to tighten its grip on the local church websites (which is understandable if some of these sites tended to add “own” material causing controversies), but without considering the aspect of the pressing information needs of local members.

    If that tightening is the latest development, we’re even further moving away from what is needed. Limiting and standardizing information to the “perfect picture” and “only good news” leaves many members in a discomforting void, for meanwhile the media and anti-Mormon sources confront them with news and issues that trouble them. Local leaders are seldom well enough informed to give clear responses or, worse, they turn to obsolete material (see Randy Bott) or react from personal attitudes (see attitude toward gays).

  27. Just an update to my previous comment: I just heard that the Church is considering making the Newsroom site also available in other languages and that translation efforts are under way. That is good news.

    However, if the Newsroom site in another language is only a copy-cat of the American one, it is not certain that the information needs of members in a certain country will be sufficiently addressed. Also backgrounds and contexts differ. Even if local leaders are given permission to add own articles in response to needs, it is not certain they have sufficient correct information and experience to word responses accurately. I recognize the expertise and wisdom of PA people at the top and hope input will come from that level.

  28. This is one of the reasons I suggested an expanded electronic version of the Ensign.

    In multiple languages it would be a start.

  29. As in my comments to Kent Larsen regarding inoculation with respect to Church history, I repeat that a magazine devoted to history and issues such as you raise would be most beneficial. It would have to be something outside the Ensign and General Conference addresses, and available to all members at a reasonable price. Thanks for your post.

  30. Anon 31-

    I agree that a church history periodical would be great. I am afraid that there wouldn’t be all that many subscribers. I would love to be wrong about that. :-)

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