Opinion leaders are those who, by virtue of their position or prominence, have influence on the opinions and beliefs of other people. Often they are empowered to make decisions that affect many others, including the Church. Some examples include elected or appointed officials, leaders of academic institutions, prominent business people, religious leaders, and members of the media.
Opinion leaders may have a profound influence on the Church’s ability to build temples or chapels, proselytize in a given country, microfilm genealogical records, or distribute humanitarian assistance. Their positive or negative opinions of the Church may be shared with other influential individuals or the media, ultimately shaping perceptions. As opinion leaders learn more about the Church and its doctrine and practices, see its good works, and become acquainted with Church members, they may be more willing, in appropriate settings and circumstances, to endorse and legitimize the Church, authorize the Church’s activities, and, when necessary, even defend the Church.
What Makes One Relationship More Vital than Another?
A positive relationship between Church leaders and any opinion leader is valuable and should be considered a blessing to the Church. However, some opinion leaders occupy more influential positions than others. Moreover, their influence can change over time. Consequently, relationships with those who are currently in a position to help or hinder the work of the Church are considered more vital than with those who do not presently occupy such a position.
The most vital relationships of all are those with individuals who can directly affect the outcome of a specific and current Church initiative in a given area. Assisting Church leaders in building positive relationships with these individuals should be the primary work of the local public affairs council.
Nearly all positive relationships, whether personal or professional, rely on the same basic principles for success. For anyone with a personal friend, the principles for establishing relationships with opinion leaders should seem fairly natural and intuitive. However, public affairs councils should keep in mind that there are also some fundamental differences between personal relationships and the largely professional and secular working relationships that are formed with opinion leaders.
While many of these principles may seem basic and intuitive, public affairs councils and priesthood leaders should carefully consider how they apply to relationships formed with specific opinion leaders.
- Relationships are formed between individuals, not institutions. It is not the Church that is seeking for a relationship with a government office, academic institution, or media outlet. Rather, individuals representing the Church desire a working relationship with individuals representing these organizations.
- There must be some common interests between the parties in a relationship. Finding topics of common interest creates opportunities for conversation, understanding, and mutual appreciation and respect.
- To endure, relationships must be mutually beneficial and fulfilling. Relationships where one party consistently asks for favors or assistance without providing some benefit in return will not endure over time.
- True relationships are sincere, natural, and voluntary. They are not forced but develop on their own as individuals are drawn to one another out of mutual respect and appreciation.
- Parties in a positive relationship enjoy an environment of mutual respect and fulfilling dialogue. Moving from mere acquaintances to a true relationship occurs naturally when parties treat each other with respect and engage in dialogue that is interesting and satisfying.
- Relationships require ongoing maintenance and nurturing to endure and grow. Neglected relationships quickly go cold. Professional working relationships, especially, require varied forms of repeat contact to remain vibrant and productive.
Working Relationships vs. Personal Relationships
A productive relationship, one that benefits the Church, does not have to be personal in nature. In fact, some opinion leaders might consider it inappropriate for an official representative of the Church to try to forge a personal relationship. This is not to say that some working relationships formed on behalf of the Church won’t eventually evolve to become personal relationships—it is almost certain that they will and will prove beneficial to the individuals involved as well as the Church. However, this is not the type of relationship that public affairs council members should be primarily working toward, and it’s important that they understand what constitutes a working relationship.
Relationships with Opinion Leaders Are Essentially Professional or Secular in Nature
Relationships with opinion leaders are generally founded on a professional or secular basis, rather than on a personal understanding of one another. Relationships may grow to become personal but must develop in ways and settings that are natural and familiar to the opinion leader. For example, professional government, business, and academic leaders are accustomed to receiving professional correspondence, formal invitations, and scheduled visitors. In some countries, a formal introduction by an individual already acquainted with the opinion leader is expected. At other times, opinion leaders would expect to be approached only by a person that they consider to be their professional or academic peer.
Bypassing expected formalities and protocol, especially on an initial approach, will almost certainly result in failure. At the very least, a willful disregard for professional or cultural protocol would reflect poorly on the Church. Public affairs councils should be well versed in the details of what is appropriate to ensure that outreach efforts are effective.
Relationships with Opinion Leaders Must Respect Their Secular Position
Opinion leaders may be personally spiritual, but unless they are a faith leader their influence generally stems from the secular position they occupy in government, academia, business, or the media. The approach of the public affairs council must not assume that opinion leaders will be sympathetic to or influenced by Church doctrine or practices, but rather must appeal to their secular position.
Experience has shown that opinion leaders are generally impressed by Church activities that can be measured by secular standards. Examples may include descriptions of disaster or humanitarian relief provided by the Church, service rendered by Church members, and secular accomplishments by Church members. Once familiarized with the Church’s activities, opinion leaders may be more receptive to appropriate explanations of gospel principles, but opinion leaders should generally initiate such discussions themselves.
Reaching Out to Opinion Leaders
Excellent planning and preparation are hallmarks of successful public affairs councils, but true success can be measured only by the strength of the relationships formed and the beneficial results that those relationships produce. Such results are directly related to the experiences opinion leaders have with Church members and priesthood leaders.
Positive Experiences = Positive Beliefs
People are generally a product of their deeply held beliefs. They make choices and act on those choices based largely on what they believe to be true. But where do beliefs come from? Most often they come from experiences.
An opinion leader who has good experiences interacting with Church members and leaders may develop positive beliefs about Mormons. For example, local government leaders who witness Latter-day Saints performing service on behalf of the local community may develop feelings of admiration that are then projected in the opinion leader’s mind to the Church as a whole. Later, these thoughts and feelings, reinforced by other positive experiences involving Church members, may persuade the opinion leader to act in ways that benefit the Church.
The lesson for public affairs councils is this: Every interaction with and activity involving opinion leaders must be appropriate, relevant, and well planned in order to provide the right kinds of experiences. These in turn will lead to the formation of accurate and positive beliefs about the Church.
How to Be Appropriate and Relevant When Interacting with Opinion Leaders
To be appropriate means acting in ways that are mindful and respectful of the opinion leader and his or her time, responsibilities, and concerns. To be relevant requires an understanding of what is important, meaningful, and helpful to the opinion leader and providing experiences that complement the opinion leader's desires.
By “stepping into the world of opinion leaders” (see below) public affairs councils will develop the necessary and specific understanding about each opinion leader required to be appropriate and relevant. Until this understanding is established, efforts to reach out to opinion leaders may suffer and should probably be postponed.
The specific details of what constitutes appropriate and relevant interaction will differ among opinion leaders; however, the following general guidelines may prove helpful.
Before a meeting, interaction, or other contact:
- Prepare thoroughly and always have a meaningful purpose for the interaction.
- Stay current on what is going on in the opinion leader’s “world” (for example, research their recent public statements, follow any recent news coverage about them or their organization).
- Keep communications professional in nature (brief, to the point, not too personal).
- Always thoroughly review and edit all correspondence to the opinion leader.
- Know details about ways the Church can and cannot assist the opinion leader.
- Anticipate questions or concerns from the opinion leader and develop appropriate responses.
- Prepare materials with the opinion leader’s interests and concerns in mind.
During the meeting, interaction, or other contact:
- Make good use of the opinion leader’s time.
- Be genuine and sincere and appropriately bold.
- Let the opinion leader initiate any “small talk.”
- Show due respect for and an understanding of the opinion leader’s position.
- Express appreciation for the opinion leader’s good works.
- Only raise subjects that you are familiar with; avoid controversies.
- Respect the opinion leader’s opinions even if they seem disagreeable.
- Err on the side of offering assistance rather than asking for favors; do not leave the opinion leader feeling obligated.
- Utilize appropriate gifts sparingly.
Following the meeting, interaction, or other contact:
- Follow up with a note of appreciation; then be in touch regularly but not so often that the opinion leader feels pestered or intruded upon.
- Recognize appropriate special events and special accomplishments.
- Look for other appropriate and relevant opportunities for interaction to further build the relationship and expand the opinion leader’s understanding about Mormonism.
Stepping into the world of opinion leaders means developing a deep understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Success in outreach depends on knowing as much as possible about opinion leaders and their interests, beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. With this information, much of which can be gathered from a variety of secondary sources such as newspapers and Internet sites, public affairs councils and priesthood leaders will know how to make their interactions with opinion leaders both appropriate and relevant.
As information is gathered, keep in mind the following:
- Start by looking for biographical and background information about the individual and his or her organization.
- Look not only for information that others have published about the opinion leader but for information that the opinion leader has published about himself or herself and his or her opinions, including personal Web sites or blogs, Web sites published by the organization that the opinion leader represents, and Twitter posts.
- Look both for things that have been said about the individual and by the individual. Pay particular attention to information contained in the opinion leader’s public speeches and comments. Look especially for anything that the opinion leader has said that is relevant to the council’s objectives or local issues.
- Look for information about what the opinion leader has accomplished recently and for any honors or recognitions bestowed on the opinion leader—especially any that might be related to the council’s objectives or issues.
- Expand the search to include statistics and articles that are relevant to what the opinion leader has said or believes about the council’s objectives or issues.
- Be aware of what detractors may be saying about the opinion leader and his or her position on various issues.
- Read www.newsroom.lds.org daily to keep updated on new information about the Church.
- For media opinion leaders, read or listen to their articles or reports to discern the types of topics they cover and to detect any consistent editorial bias or personal themes they may emphasize.