One of my clients, a major sports league, called to ask if I could suggest a guest speaker for a conference they were hosting.
I recommended a senior executive from Wells Fargo whom I knew would be great. My client paused, then said: "I’m sure he’s great, but one of our biggest sponsors is Bank of America, so I’m worried about the optics."
My client was spot on. If you are going to survive in the corporate world, you have to understand the concept of optics. My introduction to optics came when I worked at Nissan and we were trying to find a way to reach employees who were constantly on the road. This was before laptops or mobile devices, so the challenge was to find a delivery mechanism other than print that was easily accessible.
Our team came up with a novel idea – audio tapes. Cassette tapes were actually inexpensive and easy to produce, and our field people could listen to them while driving their routes. I ex-citedly approved the idea and we began to produce an internal radio show that was delivered via audio tapes.
What I failed to anticipate, however, were the optics.
As the market softened and cost cutting kicked in, our CEO began receiving angry notes about these audio cassettes. The notes said things like: "Why are we wasting money on expensive cassettes while cutting jobs in our local office?" It didn’t matter that the tapes were cheaper to produce than a publication. I had to shut down the radio show and had a black eye in the corporate suite for a while. But I learned my lesson.
Optics tend to get magnified during tough times. A few years back, following the financial crisis, one of my colleagues decided to hold a departmental off-site in Hawaii. Now granted, two of his people were based there, but the optics were bad. When word got out about the off-site, my colleague was in deep trouble.
At Korn/Ferry we faced a severe downturn after the dot-com bust, and had to drastically cut costs, including layoffs. At the time, the president of our North American operations called a leadership team meeting to strategize options for the awful market.
He understood optics and held the meeting at an American Airlines conference center at the Dallas airport that had modest accommodations, with group meals in a central cafeteria. It was decidedly not luxurious.
One of my colleagues, an EVP at corporate headquarters, was invited to attend the meeting. He asked the travel department to purchase his ticket, and they booked him in first class, which he was entitled to according to his rank. What he forgot to pay attention to, however, was the optics.
The president opened the meeting with an impassioned speech about the severity of the market and the need to reduce costs. To emphasize his point, he announced a prize for the person who spent the least amount on airfare getting to the meeting. And then he called out my buddy for having the highest airfare. He even listed the dollar amount spent on the ticket. It was public humiliation.
The thing to remember about optics is that it is all about context. So when the CEOs of the big three automakers fly private jets to plead with Congress for a taxpayer bailout, it is memorably awful. Never mind the true cost calculations and time delays involved in flying commercial, it just looks bad.
So the next time the spotlight is shining on cost reduction, take a breath before you spend money. And consider the optics.
Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.