Picture it - a front-page story in a top publication. Text winds up
and down, up and around in glorious column inches. There are out-quotes
from the CEO, a stellar product review, and a headline that will make
the client kiss your toes. It's the best press the company has ever
received, and it was all due to you.
Now picture the article with a photo that makes the CEO look like Lyle
Lovett, and turns his sleek product into something resembling a Sherman
tank. Or worse, imagine no pictures at all.
Photos can make or break editorial coverage. Few people know that better
than David Schemelia, a manager at Burson-Marsteller's media practice
and a 13-year veteran of the photo editor desk at the AP and United
Press International. Before that, he spent eight years as a staff
photographer on daily newspapers. Two years ago, he secured a New York
Times front-page photo for client St. John the Devine Church.
"Newspaper and wire photo editors are a world apart," says
"It's much easier to get a photo on the wire if you have something that
Schemelia says a photo sent over the wires has a better chance of
placement than one that more obviously comes from a PR firm. Newspapers,
he says, tend to lean toward staff-produced photos.
Larry Lippmann, picture editor at BusinessWeek, agrees that using
pictures from a PR firm is rare. His magazine, he says, uses them only
in desperation or for a small headshot. If agencies want their own
photos used, Lippmann says the quality will have to improve
"If they moved more toward something a little slicker that had a point
of view, even if they created their own point of view, that would be
great," says Lippmann, who urges environmental portraiture - a photo
that shows a person in a context - over a head-and-shoulders corporate
shot. "We're looking for imagery that has an edge to it, that tells a
story that relates to what the article itself is detailing."
Promotional shots such as a person holding a product go right into the
trash, Lippmann says. To get photos placed in a publication, he urges PR
people to study the photography in a few issues of the publication, just
as they should study text to determine where and to whom to send a text
pitch. And, just like editorial pitching, photo pitching can often be
best accomplished when tastefully tied to other news of the day.
To secure placement, then, PR execs can't rely solely on client-supplied
photos. Just as good PR people wouldn't just blast-fax a client-supplied
press release, they must take control of the photography process.
A sit-down session with a client can be the simplest way to determine
which elements the client wants to appear in pictures. Not every element
must be encapsulated in one photo. If branding, technical superiority,
and sleek design are all important to the client, consider a minimum of
three different photos, with additional pictures capturing more than one
element. For people portraits, try to remember that the photos will be
used for negative stories as well as positive ones, so 300-watt smiles
may be inappropriate. Consider capturing a range of emotions in a range
When using a professional photographer to take stock business portraits
or pictures of company facilities, tell the photographer what you'd like
to see. But unless you have technical photographic skill or knowledge
yourself, it's best to explain your goals and allow the pro to use his
or her own judgment on things like lighting and shutter speed.
Some photographers use digital equipment, which can have the bonus of
instant previews on a monitor, which means you can OK, nix, or ask for a
retake of shots on the spot. Bear in mind, however, that despite the
continual improvement in digital technology, shooting to film is still
generally considered to give the highest-quality results.
To many publications, even the best agency-produced photos are
considered second-rate, so knowing how to give adequate (and polite)
direction to a newspaper, magazine, or wire-service photographer is an
essential PR skill - even if it must be done long-distance.
For a story in the LA Times business section, New York-based NYPR
account supervisor Susan Lindner gave instructions via cell phone to a
newspaper photographer 3,000 miles away on how to photograph people she
had never met at a company she had never toured.
"I wanted the company name to appear in the photograph, so I instructed
the photographer to move to the front of the building," says
"I tried to be as nice as I could, while still getting the branding
aspects into the photo." The resulting picture became the first
business-section front photo in the company's history - "a coup," says
For computer mouse manufacturer Logitech, tech PR firm Phase Two
Strategies had CEO Guerrino De Luca photographed with Doug Englebart,
inventor of the computer mouse. An AP stringer took the photo, and it
appeared in over 15 publications, including the front pages of The
Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and section front pages in
the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today.
But whether your client manufactures computer mice or mousetraps, a
well-planned and executed photo can help sell a story. And a PR person's
ability to direct the shoot is an important skill to keep clients
1. Do speak to the client to determine which viewpoint and style should
be captured in each photo to avoid potentially bland shots of company
2. Do review photographers' portfolios for quality and price. To speed
up the proof and approval processes, look for a photographer who can
provide on-the-spot digital previews.
3. Do think like an editor - the less obviously commercial, the
Daisy Okas, VP at Weber Shandwick Worldwide's consumer practice,
describes how a technical photo of a man in a lab coat had better pickup
for the client, Kodak, than a celebrity photo.
1. Don't allow the client to portray a "zany" point of view, or
encourage inappropriate photos - like a picture of a smiling CEO wearing
a propeller beanie in an article about a company accident or crisis.
2. Don't badger photo editors of major publications. They tend to take
orders from the editorial side, so while you may want to pitch a story
with a photo, it's rare you'll have a photo you'll want to pitch without
3. Don't get bogged down in photographic minutiae. A good photographer
can translate your ideas into reality without being told which lens to
use. Advise, don't micromanage.