Smile? The double-edged sword of political photo ops

A picture tells a thousand words, and choosing the correct one can make or break an individual during a crisis.

In case you haven’t heard, the CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria, Karen Hayes, is being stood down pending an internal investigation after using her platform to endorse Australian Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

The charity said it was not aware of and in no way involved in the endorsement, and that Hayes had been stood down as a result. The situation is so unusual that some have even questioned if the move could breach charity regulator rules.

A picture tells a thousand words, something Karen’s smiling face, complete with cute puppy, knows all too well. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also aware of the power of a political photo shoot. Case in point: the infamous forced handshake moment while visiting the fire affected area of Cobargo, NSW in early 2020. It happened in the blink of an eye, but thanks to the cameras, it’s a moment that will define his career.

Images carry meaning. It’s the 'I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?' jacket worn on a humanitarian visit by a President’s wife. The pregnant secret girlfriend of the ‘family values’ politician. The environmental advocate flying on a private jet.

Then there are the tokenistic photo opportunities that might not cause a full-blown crisis, but sure don’t help. It’s the image of the CEO wearing a diamond-encrusted watch with manicured nails doing a handover of a giant charity cheque with an average-sized number written on it. It’s Scott Morrison ‘doing his bit’ by lathering up a client’s hair while visiting a salon.

Visuals can be used to your advantage, too. Think of the powerful image sent by Democratic women wearing suffragette white at the State of the Union.

Speaking of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who could forget his attempt at a photo op with Commissioner Kenneth Hayne QC, who failed to smile for the cameras when he handed over the final report from the banking royal commission? While this particular photo op didn’t play well for Frydenberg, it did give Hayne the perfect opportunity to make his feelings on the issue clear.

If you’re a business or charity leader, brand ambassador, or public figure, be very careful about what you allow to go public. It might sound dramatic, but as soon as a bad ad or mistaken photo goes public, it could be used against you. Forever.

After all, Facebook’s ad library data showed the ad featuring Hayes was barely even seen: it was supported with less than $100 in funding, and reached fewer than 2,000 people as it ran from 19 to 20 April. But thanks to the PR machine, it’s now been seen by a lot more than that.

In order to take back control of your own visuals, make sure that any photo ops are used wisely and in line with the rest of your communication channels. Make sure the context is clear and you've got an opportunity to explain the message of the photo or ad. That way, when people see it, they can relate it back to previous comments that you’ve made just before. Follow up by clarifying or re-emphasising the message and carry on the conversation with a call to action. That way, you’re in control of the whole story—and the visuals are simply a tool to get your message out there.

Images have the power to both build and destroy reputations. You can make yourself memorably aligned with a cause very quickly, but on the other hand, you can become attached to an unwanted issue or moment like glue. If you can learn to play optics in your favour, you’ll be well on your way to enduring cut-through.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.

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