Getting members, media and others to stop referring to it as ‘Mormon’ or ‘LDS’ could help the church, but the payoff might be generations away

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, located at 50 E. North Temple, Salt Lake City, is home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It won’t be easy, inexpensive — or quick — to drop “Mormon” or “LDS” as shorthand substitutes for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but some public relations professionals see benefits in trying.

It is a “pivotal time” for the Utah-based faith, says Christine Denniston, director of marketing and public relations for the Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities at Weber State University. “This is an opportunity for the church to rebrand itself.”

On Thursday, President Russell M. Nelson said in a statement that God had “impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The faith’s headquarters in Salt Lake City and Latter-day Saints across the globe have much “work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with his will,” the 93-year-old Nelson added. “In recent weeks, various church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so.”

The move to emphasize the church’s full name is “obviously important to President Nelson,” Denniston says. “Other church entities will now follow his lead.”

Denniston, who has lived in Utah for five years and is not a member of the state’s predominant faith, says the terms “Mormon” and “LDS” have created certain perceptions.

“Maybe hearing the full name,” she says, “will alter those perceptions.”

It’s like a “clean slate,” Denniston says, and could help the church “reach new groups” by defining itself in a new way.

Changing websites and online addresses — like lds.org, mormon.org, mormonandgay.org and so forth — could be completed in weeks. Getting media and others across the West, the nation and the world to drop those nicknames, however, could take years, decades, maybe generations.

Denniston says it will be “interesting to watch what happens next week, next month and next year.”

Salt Lake City public relations expert Chris Thomas also sees some positives in the move.

A Latter-day Saint, Thomas says this gives his church the chance to “emphasize its doctrine, mission and foundation as being Christian.”

Benjamin Knoll, a professor of politics at Centre College in Danville, Ky., appreciates another aspect of the verbal dictate: the potential to distinguish between groups that track their history back to church founder Joseph Smith.

“Most people know that there are many different branches of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.,” Knoll writes in an email, “but they don't tend to know that about Mormonism.”

It would be “great,” he says, “if the public knew that the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one branch of the wider Mormon tradition among many, including the Community of Christ and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

He hopes Nelson’s push to “decouple ‘Mormon’ from ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ will help make that distinction clearer in the public mind.”

Still, public relations experts and other observers are quick to point out the stiff challenge and long haul the church faces in attempting to distance itself from the labels “Mormon” and “LDS” — monikers that have been in the faith’s lexicon since the 19th century.

David Margulies, president of a Dallas public relations firm, told The Associated Press that the term “Mormon” is “ingrained in American culture and has a lot of good equity that the faith would be losing by shifting away from using it.”

Margulies “predicts confusion among people who won’t realize the full name is the same religion as Mormons,” the AP reports, “and said there’s a ‘very slim’ chance the name change will catch on.”

“It’s a recognized, large religion. Mitt Romney is a Mormon,” Margulies said. “It’s well established so if you’re going to change it, you need a reason for changing it that makes sense. ... Changing the name sounds like you’re covering something up.”

Denniston notes that “Mormon” and “LDS” are “long-standing words associated with the church. How do you still convey the faith with a new word? It’s a branding exercise.”

The obstacles are not “insurmountable,” she says, but they are “a reality.”

It likely will take a “significant effort to connect the old name with a new direction,” says Thomas, as well as a “significant sum” of money.

He points out that it was going to cost more than $50 million to rebrand the Utah Transit Authority.

“I would guess [rebranding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], he says, “would be exponentially higher.”

So Thursday’s announcement, Thomas says, was just the “start of a long process.”

As a PR professional, he understands the need to convey to outsiders the centrality of Jesus Christ that Latter-day Saints feel in their faith, but he believes it comes down to believers’ behavior.

“Regardless of what name is used, the church will be judged by how members conduct themselves, how they treat other people, and what kind of reputation they have,” Thomas says. “It is essential to see charity and kindness by those who proclaim to be members of the church.”

In the end, it may not matter to Nelson whether media or members adopt his preferred style immediately, or how much money it costs, or how long it takes.

The church prophet said God told him to do it, and so he did.