Neil Martinson: photography still the key to good press coverage

I have a confession to make. In a previous life I worked as a photographer and actually made a reasonable living from it. Ever since then I've always tried to commission talented photographers and pay them the rate for the job.

Neil Martinson: Good photography counts
Neil Martinson: Good photography counts

Not out of any sense of obligation but in recognition of the difference they can make in creating images that are memorable and newsworthy.

Last month saw the final blaze of autumnal colours and a superb photograph of a National Trust property, Stourhead House, which was widely featured in the national press. Many images that in the press are there as fillers or feed our seemingly endless appetite for celebrity pictures but add little to the story.

The image of Stourhead House worked because it was relevant, beautiful and different to the usual daily diet. So, tempted by the image, I went to the National Trust website to discover the Outdoor Nation debate packed full of user-generated content, flickr and YouTube channels and a range of techniques to engage with visitors.

If I lived anywhere near Stourhead House I would probably have visited that as well. In short, a really good example of modern PR that can produce quantifiable results (I would have been counted online) from a photograph and provide a great visitor experience online and offline.

Photography competitions are not new but digital has transformed the reach and the scale-ability of user involvement. That, in turn, makes it far more attractive for sponsorship opportunities. Landscape Photographer of the Year involves thousands of (paid for) entries, has a stellar list of sponsors and the winning entries receive widespread coverage across all media.

Although we can all take photographs now courtesy of our mobile phones that doesn’t necessarily mean we are all photographers. That’s not meant to be snobby. It’s the difference between those that look and those that see and can capture what the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’.  

Of course the wide availability photographic devices have transformed how news can be recorded and reported through public contributions. The fuzzy scenes following 7/7 or the images of floods outside people’s homes can all add to our understanding of events. That’s not the same as creating and constructing images to achieve a desired impact.

This can be unbelievably hit or miss for PRs. Remarkably the grip and grin or explicit product placement photographs still get commissioned and rarely make the news unless they are genuinely imaginative.

Sky+HD managed just that last year with a completely bonkers screening of the Titanic in a swimming pool full of fake icebergs and lifeboats with film fans in period costumes. It was an outstandingly surreal image that made the centre spread of the Guardian.

Even though video is now ubiquitous, still photography can be far more powerful in creating an image that we retain long after the event and shape our views of the person or the product.

Is there enough training in the PR industry on photography and the use of images? And shouldn’t there be a PR Week Award for the best use of photography?

Neil Martinson is director of news and PR at the COI

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