Before authorities raided their west Texas retreat, members of a secretive polygamous church spent decades holding as tightly to their intense privacy as the Scriptures guiding their way of life.
Contact with outsiders was limited. Media inquiries were rejected with either stone-faced silence or a polite “no comment.”
But after Texas officials removed 416 children belonging to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect fired up the public relations machine.
From newspaper stories to appearances on morning network television, “Larry King Live” and “Oprah,” FLDS women are speaking publicly about the heartbreak of being separated from their children and sharing some details of their life.
“This was just such a heinous thing that the normal rules didn’t apply,” said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney serving as a spokesman for the church. “What we were trying to do was inject a human element into what was happening here. Put names to faces and not just think of these people as being so different.”
State officials raided the ranch April 3 after a domestic violence hotline call from a 16-year-old girl who alleged she was trapped inside the private retreat and had been physically and sexually abused by her much older husband.
The public relations campaign began a more than a week later, when many FLDS women who had been allowed to remain with their children in state shelters were bused back to their 1,700-acre ranch.
Within an hour, church leaders threw open a pair of normally locked gates, launching a two-day media blitz. Cameras and reporters have had tours of the grounds and peeks inside the sect’s homes and a church school.
And while the message seems clearly targeted, the decision was less calculated than it may seem, Parker said.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do this. It was literally made as we were standing at the gate,” said Parker, who has handled civil and criminal court matters for the FLDS since 1990.
Going public in the midst of a big crisis is always a risk, said Dick Amme, a public relations and crisis communications specialist from Winston-Salem, N.C.
Amme said he advises clients to asses the situation, gather the facts, fix the central problem and then “get truth of the situation to the media as quickly as possible.”
“Their job should be getting out as much information about the children and how they take care of them as possible,” Amme said. “That’s got to be the focal point.”
Not talking “defines you only by what goes wrong,” he added.
Most women in the church hardly come off as naturals in front of the camera. Many speak in soft, timid voices. Some appeared almost robot-like in their speech and mannerisms.
Critics charge that the women were coached into saying only what church leaders allowed. Parker said the women were told to speak only if they wanted, and to keep their focus on the plight of the children.
Plural-marriage families exist mostly in the shadows, said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of Principle Voices, a Utah-based polygamy advocacy group. She said families typically don’t speak publicly for fear they’ll be prosecuted for bigamy or lose their children to state authorities.
“It’s scary, but ultimately, we decided to speak up and let the chips fall where they may,” said Batchelor, now a regular on the polygamy media circuit. “When there is a lot of mystery about something, then people’s imaginations start to fill in the gaps and they tend to go darker and darker. That leads to a lot of misperceptions.”
Media access to the FLDS has historically been scant, usually concentrated around criminal court cases. Occasional softer stories have been told about a happy FLDS lifestyle in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, but never were outsiders allowed to enter FLDS homes or learn much about the people living there.
“What’s wrong with that?” said Dan, a 24-year-old FLDS member who declined to give his last name because he feared the effect on his two children, who are in state custody. “There’s no purpose in it that would benefit us.”
Parker said that he has long advocated that the FLDS talk to the press, but that the idea was always shot down. Church leaders feared stories would be slanted against them or make them look weird.
It’s unclear how much openness church leaders will continue to allow. Parker said that he encourages it, but that Texas lawyers now working with the church may advise otherwise.
“I think we did gain some positive things. The question is whether we can maintain that,” Parker said. “They’ve learned a lot.”