Monday, December 15, 2008

Thinking Out of the Box Series: Public Relations and Missionaries

In the missionary cause the LDS Church does an adequate job at promoting missionary work at the national and regional levels. Elder Ballard and Elder Cook even went on a tour to the national papers talking about the unique tenets of the Church last summer. The LDS News room, Church News, and church publications seem to have one or two monthly features sharing some faith-promoting conversion experience. It is very motivational for the church members who read it and its purpose is to fire them up to do member missionary work or to get some young man or woman to go on a mission. It doesn't really appeal to non-members but since our audience is non-members also we need to do a better job getting ourselves out in front of them on a consistent basis.

People will argue that we have gotten a lot of attention with Proposition 8. With the Proposition 8 attention we have developed quite a bit of attention probably more negative than positive. Proposition 8 has been like a lightning rod with it polarizing many people. Initiatives like Proposition 8 generally are meteoric in coverage. They rise to a crescendo leading up the election and have a bit of heat left shortly after but within a few months things die down. People's emotional level begins to diminish as we move on a few months down the road. There will be good and bad outcomes in terms in missionary work. Many people will be incensed that we weren't tolerant and many people will congratulate the missionaries that we sided with the conservative fundamentalists but most still won't want to openly examine the missionaries lessons.

I suspect that the majority of people that we appeal to are in the center camp. Both extremes will use the LDS's support of the traditional family as a way to blow them off without really examining their message. But the general person will be consistent in their attitudes of letting them in if they aren't busy. In other places in the world it won't have much affect since they won't really care about these kind of issues.

I believe that even negative press can be helpful since they can readily identify Mormon missionaries who are branded by their white shirts and ties either walking or riding on bicycles. I am not sure that young missionaries though have much tolerance for finessing this type of discussion. They see issues as black and white not in subtle shades of grey.

When it comes down to the local level it is a hit and miss proposition. Mission presidents don't really concentrate as well as they could on this aspect of putting forth their message.

Mission presidents do a good job of promoting their message to the members of the Church as they are constantly speaking at ward, stake and regional conferences. Only a handful of them even blog and fewer still give gospel messages to investigators. (You can check my sidebar but I know there are less than ten of mission president blogs and less than 50 missionary blogs.) Mission presidents and missionaries are losing a valuable way to get out their message. Even those who blog don't give contact information in case someone stumbles on their site. Missionaries and mission presidents use it as a vehicle for sharing what they are doing with members of the church rather than a hybrid of teaching the gospel and communicating their stories. It is mostly a online diary for families with an occasional picture thrown in.

I really think the missionary department and the General Authorities need to blog in a more systematic way. I strongly believe a few 70s who have served as mission presidents should formally launch missionary related journals on doctrinal themes and practices. The people like myself who do it may do a good job but not in a systematic way with official sanction and a public relations machine that has been correlated. I fear people think I am an official representative of the Church and that is far from the truth. I have to do a lot of research even on minor things like what does a mission secretary do? Sometimes I put out what I believe is a harmless topic and it develops in to a knock down drag out fight over something as stupid as should missionaries have their wisdom teeth removed before their missions which in my opinion is a no-brainer. But then dentists argue no. In a practical sense I am sure a missionary nor his family in Mongolia wants a dentist who may or may not be capable of doing it. Even in the U.S. my future son-in-law almost died with board certified people. There needs to be both member generated blogs and official Church sanctioned blogs so that people like Aaron Shafovaloff can feel they are taking on the official church not a bunch of people he feels are misinformed.

I hope to see a better online presence from the missionary department. Missionaries even in the field have lots of concerns about their health and mental well-being. I actually read every blog on my side bar. I can see missionaries who are struggling to get through for a few months who admit to depression, one or two enamored of female sisters or members that need transferred etc. I firmly believe if they don't want to get in the foray they should at least read the stuff out there. I get a few visits from the Church on occasion but the missionary department is too arrogant to use the tools in front of their face. It never fails to astonish me how the obvious could be averted but we don't take advantage of what is there let alone use technology to create better public relations opportunities. You have to be nimble mentally to address the different commenters since they are all in different places. Many times it would have been nice if I had a little support from faithful members who could have give me an assist instead of telling me I must be crazy or mentally whacked out to take on the issues I do.

It is a vast undertaking to tackle all the ramifications of LDS missionary work. I have asked for help from guest bloggers such as mission presidents, parents of missionaries etc. So far I am a voice in the wilderness. Back to public relations!

I seldom read in the papers of the region much about the happenings of either the mission or its missionaries. I have been systematically compiling every mention of any elder in every mission of the church which is in itself a daunting task. It is rarely that I find a newspaper report about the local elders in any mission throughout the world. On occasion I find one but not on a regular basis.

This is a little utilized method that could pave the way for them to be better known in their individual communities and give them recognition when they tract or teach people. People would say "Oh yah I saw you in the paper." For example in an area such as Summerville, South Carolina where I live they could easily have a small piece in the local Summmerville Scene paper whenever a new missionary moves in to the community. The St. George Eagle would probably do the same for the other set of missionaries since they have that city in their area. It is human interest news. When writing an article it needs to be between 200-350 words. The shorter the better and more likely to be filler.

I feel there should be a new position added on every mission president's staff of a missionary public relations officer. He or she could place newspaper ads throughout the mission field. I place no fewer than four a week in the local papers promoting the local libraries programs or events. The papers will take anything that fits their word limits. You could advertise open houses, missionary workshops, group lessons, doctrinal firesides or lectures, short biographies about the missionaries or the mission president etc.

I also feel they could go around to the various radio stations. I spoke five times in a couple month period in my job. I had fewer than two minutes but it was a public service spot. Missionaries would be welcome guests on the various AM channels in their areas. There are dozens of opportunities for a two minute guest spot. I suggest you go in person and talk with the early morning DJ or the general manager.

Another thing for good public relations is why not leverage missionary service opportunities. I noticed in the Washington D.C. South Mission they have systematically developed a moving service. I think a mission could have magnetic signs put on their vehicles to promote missionaries helping new people in the area move in. You could develop a slick brochure. The missionaries could agree to pack and load and for every hour they agree to be taught. I see some missions use car washes instead of loading and unloading. It is good community service. Why should missionaries load and unload for members when their responsibility is primarily to the nonmembers? Don't get me wrong missionaries have been my best helpers in a few moves I have made. I am sure there could be some legal implications if it was formalized due to injury etc. but I think those could be overcome. Now you have missionaries who are already giving at least five or ten hours a month to members why not leverage that in to potential converts. I would feel good about anyone helping me no matter if they were a Baptist or a Muslim. I make friends with people who help me when I move somewhere as they will then suggest to me possible churches and vendors to do business with. To save myself back breaking work I would listen to a Wiccan for a couple hours.

I recently saw a missionary referral on the front of a church bulletin. Why don't we run ads in the local classifieds in inexpensive places like the Nifty Nickle etc. that have an actual referral slip. It would be personalized for the area missionaries with their phone number or email address. We also don't use viral marketing as well as Internet marketers. How about courses on how to do family history where people opt-in for mailings? Or Improving Family Relations website? You provide them a series of lessons online. You could develop interactions between an instructor who could be missionaries who operate in real time online.

My favorite new idea is to change the whole way we proselyte. I think we could call family history missionaries to supplement the Preach My Gospel Approach. We keep the old program but we start a whole new one based on family history as the focus. Our missionaries could be local people or couple missionaries who go in to the home and present a series of five or six lessons where they help non-members do their family history. The mission president could be over both groups. You could mix and match between the two types of missionaries having them cross-trained. On the last discussion they could hand off the non-member to a full-time proselyting elder for more doctrinal teaching or vice a versa. I suspect we could baptize fifty or one hundred thousand people a year more than the two hundred thousand we now get with the approach I have in mind. We could expand the missionary force since people could operate from their homes. More older couples and single people who are above the raising the bar standards could assist as could general members with a few hours to spare. Every member a missionary would have more meaning if we all taught non-members.

I know that the public affairs people are in each stake and some do a good job. I feel that it should be a more uniform and consistent effort when it comes to missionary work.

These are just a few of my ideas. I am sure there are plenty I haven't thought of that could be explored. People shouldn't feel defensive since talking about this stuff can sometimes generate efficiencies in effort that haven't been considered.


S.Faux said...

Dr. B:

Thanks for your intriguing ideas outside of the box. I like the family history approach. It sounds a lot better than tracting (knocking on doors).

I live in the midwest, and there are a lot of unresolved stereotypes: We cannot dance, watch TV, drink sodas, or celebrate Christmas. Polygamy is still practiced. We cannot join the military. Etc. Etc. I have heard all of these things.

Other than our devotion to service, we actually live normal lives with normal jobs. We need to do a better job of promoting how we actually live, not just the doctrines we believe.

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