Amid heightened scrutiny because of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s White House bid, the Mormon church is raising its public relations profile, making moves that reflect deep concerns over widely held myths about the faith and internal anxiety over the need to convince outsiders that it will remain neutral as a Mormon runs in the 2008 contest.
“We have to walk a very fine line to stay away from political issues,” said Michael Otterson, media relations director for the 12.6 million-member worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “But it is clear that the profile of the church will be raised during this (campaign) period. All of the things that are going on will serve as catalysts to raise questions about us and who we really are.”
In line with its recent restructuring, the church has ended a decade-long relationship with Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm, with 2,500 employees in 46 offices worldwide. Edelman won some distinction in 2002 when it helped the church navigate the Winter Olympics bidding scandal in Salt Lake City.
The local account was handled by Michael Deaver, a former top aide to president Reagan. Deaver did not return phone calls. In response to a query from The Politico, Otterson wrote in an e-mail: “The church uses a number of agencies from time to time, depending on need. Indeed, it still has the option to work with Edelman. Although it’s true we have ended the formal contract, very few such contracts in that industry last so long. You shouldn’t assume that this represents any ‘change of direction’ for the church.”
Otterson, in a phone interview from the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters, said the church is interviewing other firms but declined to name them. Several Edelman staffers who would not talk on the record said the church sought to have increased autonomy in its media relations.
It remains an open question in Otterson’s mind whether Romney’s candidacy will wind up as “an Achilles’ heel for politicians” or whether, as he hopes, the campaign season “will help people address universal ignorance about us. We have a lot of work to do. If we are able to define ourselves, that would be a welcome result.”
Romney, whose family has deep roots in the Mormon faith, raised his political profile last week by reporting that he had gathered $21 million in campaign contributions, the most of any contender for the Republican nomination, since the start of the “money race.”
“While institutionally we are keeping our distance,” Otterson explained, “some Mormons around the country are watching with bemused interest at what is happening out there.” In keeping with his stance, the church spokesman did not observe that Romney’s solid religious ties allow him to tap into a cohesive and relatively affluent network of supporters eager to mount a grass-roots campaign on his behalf.
Republican presidential hopeful former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney talks to state legislators and staff in a closed door meeting at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Romney’s recent financial coup, and the attendant media buzz that it generated, is not the only issue driving the church’s nuanced public relations strategy, one that Otterson stresses remains in place despite mounting pressures. A controversy erupted last week over the decision of church-owned Brigham Young University to have Vice President Cheney as its commencement speaker in Provo, Utah, on April 26. The invitation from the school’s board of trustees has triggered protests on the nearly all-Mormon campus. It led one unnamed professor to tell the Salt Lake Tribune, “If BYU seeks to bring a model of abuse of power, greed and political extremism, which seeks to decimate citizens’ rights guaranteed by our laws, then Cheney is a perfect choice.”
But Otterson sees the coming academic event as an opportunity to underscore the church’s institutional noninvolvement in political matters — as separate and distinct from the political views of individual church members, about half of whom are U.S. citizens. That policy is spelled out on a recently revamped branch of the church’s broad website. Called “Newsroom,” it is aimed at the media and maintains links to items critical of the church, including ones that contend the church’s doctrinal stance carries broad public policy consequences. “You have to do that,” he added, “to maintain your credibility.”
The website maintains that the church does not “endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.” Nor does it allow its extensive resources “to be used for partisan political purposes.” Nor does it try to tell its members who to vote for, whether or not the candidate is a Mormon. In positive terms, it does “reserve the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the church.”
Otterson also voiced concern over the potential negative impact of a PBS television documentary, “The Mormons,” that the network plans to air on April 30 and May 1. Though few outsiders have previewed the material, Otterson said he understood that it deals extensively with polygamy, a practice that the U.S.-founded religion has officially banned since 1890. A Gallup poll released last month showed that even among Americans who share the most favorable opinions of the faith, polygamy was the most frequently mentioned single impression of Mormons. On an overall basis, Gallup reported that 46 percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of the religion, a finding that has since been cited as a political hurdle that Romney has to overcome if his campaign is to thrive.
In contrast to some other religious bodies, the Mormon church remains virtually inactive on Capitol Hill. “Our interaction at that level is minimal,” Otterson says. “That’s not high-priority for us.”
For about two decades, the Mormons have maintained a presence in Washington, primarily to cement relations with ambassadors from countries where the church does extensive missionary work. Since 2005, the six-person staff has been led by M. Kenneth Bowler, 64, who for 16 years ran a $6 million-a-year D.C. lobbying operation for Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. He estimates that only 5 percent of the office’s work deals with Congress or with the Bush administration. When contacts with lawmakers occur, they tend to deal with issues of direct interest to the church. For example, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a church member, notified Bowler that he planned to amend pending bankruptcy legislation to ensure filers could continue to meet their religious tithes.
As the top spokesman for his church, Otterson has been posting items on WashingtonPost.com’s popular “On Faith” blog. His most recent filing concluded: “Civility and inclusiveness, consensus and reasonableness are — like depth, substance and context — becoming casualties of a mass media trend. Our society will be the worse for it if the trend isn’t checked.”