Presenting the Church’s Image: A Conversation with Wendell J. Ashton

Wendell J. Ashton


In the fall of 1972 the First Presidency called Wendell J. Ashton, a Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve and an advertising executive, to be managing director of external communications for the Church. Recently, Ensign staff members met with Brother Ashton to discuss the role of the new department.

Question: What is meant by external communications, and what will the department do?

First of all, I think we should look back about a year ago to when the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve organized the Internal Communications Department. This department deals with communications with members of the Church, including Church magazines, manuals for the auxiliaries and priesthood organizations, and the distribution of materials to the Church members. It was intended that a similar organization should exist to relate the Church and its activities to the “outside” world. Thus External Communications came into being, with the responsibility of communicating through the established media, such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and outdoor advertising, and dealing with the public through expositions, visitors centers, and the like. In summary, it is telling our story to the world as an aid to the missionary effort.

Question: How is the department organized?

We have five divisions. The first division relates to visitors centers, fairs, expositions, pageants, and that type of communication with the public. The Hill Cumorah and Mormon Miracle pageants, for instance, come under this division. It should be explained that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve have decided that personnel in visitors centers outside of Utah will serve under the direction of the mission presidents in whose missions the centers are situated. We shall work with these visitors centers on displays and brochures, but the directors of the various centers will report to their respective mission presidents. Visitors centers in Utah will come under our supervision in regard to both personnel and displays and brochures.

The second division of our responsibility will deal with news releases. For instance, when a new temple is announced, such as the one in Washington, D.C., or new General Authorities are called, then it will be our responsibility to prepare the information for the media. In this area we shall be working very closely with Internal Communications where there is a need also to notify the membership of the Church.

Our third division deals with stake and mission public relations. This division assists the local organizations in dealing with the media and in telling our story. Through this division we shall provide tapes of conferences, for instance, that could be used by radio and television stations in stakes and missions around the world. Also, press kits will be provided for taking information to the media on such Church programs as welfare services, genealogy and temple work, and family home evenings. We shall work closely with Internal Communications in producing posters and other displays for stake and mission proselyting efforts.

In this regard we have recently made available replicas of the Aztec and Inca calendar stones and small replicas of the pyramids of Egypt, the Americas, and Samoa. These would be used as points of interest in local displays to draw attention to the Book of Mormon.

The fourth division is administrative services, which includes making photographs available to the media and to the Church and special projects that may arise from time to time. It also includes the Church hosting service, which is provided for important persons who come to Salt Lake City to visit the General Authorities, Temple Square, and other places of interest.

This division is also responsible for the preparation of brochures on the Church and its activities. For instance, we are now preparing a brochure on how people can donate to such Church institutions as the Primary Children’s Hospital or Brigham Young University, and how the Church manages the gifts received.

The fifth division deals with special features and services with the electronic media. For example, two of the national television networks are now planning documentaries on the Church. This division works with Bonneville International Corporation, which has been doing a marvelous job in providing tapes and video recordings as well as live coverage of general conferences through radio and television. The October 1972 general conference was carried by 214 television stations, mostly in the United States. This compares with only 56 television stations carrying conference messages in 1951. We also had coverage through 128 radio stations in the United States and 13 other countries, compared with 82 in 1961.

Bonneville International has also produced public service messages of 30- and 60-seconds duration, dealing with such topics as family relations. These messages have been carried by 1,038 radio stations, in all 50 states of the United States, in addition to 400 radio stations in the American Armed Forces network. We are now preparing a new series of public service messages in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as in English. We think these announcements, identified as they are with the Church, are an effective missionary tool.

With this fifth division we shall deal with research into methods of more effectively teaching the gospel through the media and through other means. The overall goal, of course, is to teach the gospel around the world to all nations.

Question: Many of these functions of the Church in the past have been directed through various individual offices. Why is the Church now bringing these together into one department?

As we become more and more a worldwide church, all these activities must be correlated. We need to be aware of what we have at our disposal and what are the best means of reaching as many people as effectively as possible.

For instance, the First Presidency has authorized the creation of an international advisory committee comprised of prominent Latter-day Saints in business and the professions. They will not only counsel us and give us suggestions, but they will also provide us with wisdom, experience, and contacts with media people around the world and will provide valuable information on the local approach to the media. We must be more aware of differences in communicating in different countries.

Question: How will the department be of value to the membership of the Church?

The division responsible for stake and mission public relations will be the first contact when stake or mission areas desire to promote the Church and the gospel in their particular areas. If a stake wants to conduct an open house, perhaps for a new building, then well ahead of time the stake leaders can contact us, and through the stake and mission public relations division, we can provide the professional assistance and know-how they need to do an effective job. This division can, when needed, call upon the services of the other divisions, so that the members in the Church can call upon the resources they need to fulfill their role as missionaries.

This department will also be working with the stakes and missions to establish local public relations committees to serve local media. Again, these committees will be able to call upon the professional resources we can provide as needed.

Question: Overall, then, might we say that through this coordination, the Church is making a very positive move in its relations with the media?

One of President Harold B. Lee’s first directions to me was to establish an organization by which we reach out to tell our story and help the total missionary effort. President Lee himself has set the pace by making himself available for press conferences and individual interviews. This is most important, because we want the world to get better acquainted with our President, the Church, and the gospel.