Mitt Romney, De-facto Spokesman for Mormonism; Or, How the LDS Manages PR Like a Corporation


Yesterday’s failed attempt to “swift boat” Mitt Romney gives us the perfect lead-in to look at what the candidate means to the Mormon Church, or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

The ho-hum press conference yielded just a dozen reporters, not 300 as promised and only one mainstream placement (the WashPost blog linked above). However, if you look at the slew of comments generated, Romney’s religion elicits confusion and debate whenever mentioned.

We took the time to speak to a Mormon and do a bit of homework. Specifically, we spoke to an active member of LDS who is also a practicing PR professional at a brand we suspect nearly 100% of Americans would recognize. Though not doing PR in any way for LDS, this professional did confirm a few of our theories on the religion’s image.

Whether Romney or the Church likes it or not, the primary season is the big moment for the LDS’s image. Much like the entity itself, Romney is extraordinarily disciplined, shrewd in business, and until recently, a good communicator. Despite this, both have a huge challenge in getting the public to believe Mormonism is just another form of Christianity.

The only other time the Church’s image was in the spotlight this much was during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. Utah is estimated to be 61% Mormon, with roughly half of all American Mormons living there.

And yes, the LDS spends on PR and advertising. According to my source, the LDS has only a handful of PR people in Salt Lake, though has a much larger public affairs committee in Washington, DC which employs Edelman, and reports directly to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Think of the Quorum as a group of a dozen Popes. That’s how import image is to the LDS.

(more after the jump)

While the starched Romney does his stumping, and thousands upon thousands of squeaky clean 18-year-old missionaries are out there trying to explain the LDS to the general public, the Church contends with negative pop culture entities and disturbing criminal cases involving polygamy constantly.

The Church outlawed polygamy a century ago in an agreement to gain statehood, splinter groups are always associated with the LDS when the sh&% hits the fan. For more information on the history, the 4-hour PBS special is a great source.

The Economist also dissected the history of LDS carefully in December, when Romney gave his JFK-ish “Faith in America” speech.

HBO’s Big Love is the latest and very thorough piece of pop culture dealing with Mormonism. The show takes a fictional look at people who practice “plural marriage” on the fringes, as well as those trying to live within it still faced with explaining the Church’s checkered past.

For a hilarious take, see South Park’s skewering of the Church’s history.

Like all religions, Mormonism serves many of its members quite well, and has many angry former members (again, see yesterday’s presser) on the edges.

Whether the U.S. is ready for a Mormon president remains question of communications.

Why is Mormonism so different from a PR standpoint than say, Catholicism’s woes?

I asked a Catholic who put it simply, “antiquity confers legitimacy.” A hundred years or so is not much time for a religion to sink in the public consciousness.

What about those missionaries I mentioned? The aforementioned Mormon PR person likened them to “brand ambassadors.” Stop and talk to them sometime. You can spot them by clear eyes (no booze or caffeine allowed!) and nametags they’re required to wear.

Imagine having a PR campaign with thousands of enthusiastic, educated, on-message spokesepeople patiently explaining their brand on a one-on-one basis. It would work, eventually.