As everyone knows, a picture tells a thousand words. It can catch
the eye and tell a story with immediate and powerful effect. Think of
the pictures of Bobby Moore clutching the World Cup in 1966, the Kennedy
assassination or more recently the flower-strewn cortege at Princess
Diana’s funeral. These pictures are working hard to communicate to the
The messages PR agencies want to get across generally have less impact
than the examples above, but the same principle applies. The consensus
opinion, however, is that the PR industry has to date made poor use of
photography for communications purposes.
The Robert Harding picture library contacted 100 PR agencies a year ago
in an unsuccessful attempt to sell them the idea of using more
’Design agencies employ creative people who understand images, but PR
agencies are copy-led and do not think in terms of images,’ says Martin
Pittaway, the library’s sales manager.
’PR has been a bit behind in understanding the concept of using an image
to promote a product,’ he adds.
Alastair McDavid, managing director of Thistle Photography, which does a
lot of work for PR agencies, says too many are missing a trick when
planning a campaign using the print media. ’Good pictures catch a
picture editor’s eye and he will use them to give his pages more visual
impact,’ he says. ’They can make what would otherwise have been a filler
story the page lead.’
There are now signs of a change, however, as agencies are beginning to
use photography more strategically - not only to support a press
release, but also to tell the story.
Simon Jones, a director of Harvard PR, says his agency often surprises
clients by asking about visual ideas right at the start of planning a
campaign. Jones says Harvard uses digital picture composition techniques
to create montage photographs that tell a story.
For example, a shot used to support Motorola’s range of business
equipment had a backdrop of a corporate environment with examples of the
client’s communications technology equipment in the foreground,
overlayed with the Motorola bat wing logo. Harvard also supplied the
same shot to newspapers without the branded overlay, and this has been
used generically to the benefit of the brand. In all, Jones says the
shot has been used 30 times.
Taking advantage of the medium, companies specialising in using visual
communications in a PR function are now emerging. One such agency is
Stewart Goldstein, head of the company’s photographic division, says the
key to getting photography to work in this way is to think about the
photographic element at the outset of a campaign.
’We like to be called in at the early stages so we can have visual input
in to the whole campaign,’ he says. ’It is essential not to bring the
photographer in just as an after-thought.’
The golden rule, it seems, is that it is never too soon to bring in a
photographer. At a set-piece event, an annual results conference for
example, using a photographer to consult on the set design will mean
’People often go to great lengths to design a set but it might look twee
in photographs - they should consult a photographer to get his input on
what will work,’ says McDavid.
’The same goes for logos: something yellow and green might look nice in
the hand, but it will not stand out in photographs,’ he adds.
If a photographer or a visual communications agency is brought in early
enough, there are opportunities for getting a story into a range of
publications with pictures tailored for different editorial
Publications commonly use different shots to put their own spin on the
same event. Last month at the Oscar ceremony, for example, most
broadsheets used a straight photograph of best supporting actress winner
Dame Judi Dench, while the tabloids used pictures of best actress winner
Gwyneth Paltrow in tears, and the trade papers used pictures of
actor/director Roberto Benigni clambering across the seats in glee.
PR agencies often do not understand the diversity of photography, or how
important it is to invest in specific pictures for specific targets.
’It is extremely important to understand your market,’ says
’You need to specifically sculpt your picture for your target
When Boots launched an in-store chiropody service last month, for
instance, the agency used a photo of a circle of feet for the
broadsheets; a photo of a line of customers and the chiropodist for the
mid-market tabloids, an individual being treated for local papers, and a
delighted, long-serving staff member who had been on her feet for years,
getting a piggy-back from the chiropodist for the tabloids.
Simply labelling the same picture with a different caption can have an
equally good response. Harvard sent a promotional shot for Demon
Internet to the nationals (for whom the internet was a hot new topic)
with a ’too hot to handle’ line, and to the trade papers (who knew Demon
had been quiet rather too long) with a ’Demon rises out of the ashes’
To get the best use of photography, PR agencies also need to know how to
persuade newspapers to use pictures which carry a commercial
For example, agencies need to understand what constitutes an acceptable
level of branding in a shot.
’PR agencies often make the big mistake of plastering the logo
everywhere - these pictures will go in the bin,’ says Goldstein. But
newspapers will use photographs that have a subtler branding, something
which is still very valuable to the client.
It is also possible to plug a client in the caption. If a newspaper is
sent an interesting photograph that demands an explanation and this
involves your client, you are scoring twice.
’British Gas sponsors the ballet, so we took some ballerinas to a gas
platform,’ says Goldstein. ’They have no option but to explain that in
the caption,’ he adds.
But the ultimate key to making photography work as part of a PR campaign
is to choose photographs which are interesting and different - however
boring the material.
David Cook, a director of PR agency Stuart Muir Communications, which
works with a lot of hi-tech clients, believes that the more unusual the
shot, the more likely it will be to receive widespread coverage. ’Don’t
be afraid of straying from the norm,’ he advises. ’Use something which
will make the photograph stand out. It doesn’t take much to make things
more interesting, it often means just being less formal.’
His company, for instance, has a US client which makes computer graphics
cards which are not visually striking. But by taking a shot of a card
stuck in sand surrounded by cacti to illustrate the fact that the
company was based in the desert, the client received a lot of
According to McDavid, an easy way of making your pictures more appealing
is to pay close attention to colours, particularly shades of red.
’Look at front page pictures in newspapers,’ he says. ’More often than
not, you will see red in them. We do a lot of photography for holiday
brochures and we always ask for red geraniums to be put in vases.’
’Agencies need to advise their clients what to wear in the same way -
something bright, at least a bright tie. Three businessmen in dark suits
looks dreadful,’ he adds.
An increased interest in photography in PR could not come at a better
time, coinciding as it does with the growth of of digital picture
manipulation and delivery technology.
’As a result of digital, agencies need to be more aware of deadlines and
remember picture editors now have many more pics coming off the wires
onto their desks to choose from,’ says McDavid. It is a timely
H&K: PHOTO MANIPULATION PUTS B&Q ON THE FRONT PAGE
Hill and Knowlton hired Medialink Eyecatchers, the photographic arm of
PR services agency Medialink, to generate positive PR coverage using
visual media for DIY retailer B&Q. The campaign was part of an effort to
gain national coverage for the client’s 30th birthday announcement that
2,500 new jobs were to be created in 13 new stores.
Two weeks before the shoot, Hill and Knowlton arranged a meeting to
discuss ideas for the shoot. The TV consultancy arm of Medialink was
invited to take part in the brain-storming. For the nationals, it was
decided to target the business sections.
The agency needed a picture to link the jobs story to the birthday
The idea chosen summed up the story simply and lent itself to the
creation of a picture that would catch picture editors’ eyes. The
company’s bosses would be surrounded by the 2,500 aprons for the new
staff. The aprons in B&Q stores are red, a colour that stands out on the
page and thus makes it a favourite of picture editors. It was important
that the agency made it look as if there were thousands of aprons,
although there would be far less. The B&Q executives also needed to be
senior enough to interest the papers.
The company decided the best location would be one of the stores so
internal shots for the company could be done at the same time. There
also needed to be time to set up the shot. The team arrived an hour
ahead of the shoot time with 200 aprons which would eventually be made
to look like 2,500.
The aprons were arranged on boxes to create the impression of a huge
pile surrounding the two executives. An outline shape was created with
the boxes and bags that were on hand, with a hole in the middle for the
senior management to stand in. The boxes were then covered with the
aprons to produce the effect of piles of aprons. Once the executives
arrived, the shoot lasted 20 minutes with the photographer being careful
to create shots in the right styles for the targeted publications.
The story was then sold in on a Sunday for Monday’s papers by Medialink
Eyecatchers using contacts on picture business desks and Hill and
Knowlton sent out press releases.
The picture made the front page of both the Guardian financial page and
the Telegraph business section. It also featured in the Independent, the
Times and the Birmingham Post.
DIGITAL STORAGE: ELECTRONIC LIBRARIES CAN WIDEN PR COVERAGE
We are now in the middle of a digital communications revolution.
At its simplest, this revolution is a transport revolution - allowing
easy storage, transfer and retrieval of information.
One opportunity this creates for PR agencies is that visual material can
be distributed to media or clients far more effectively via a digital
picture distribution service than in hard copy form on a bike - there is
no need to even print the picture. Pictures can be sent out
electronically or posted at an electronic library from where they can be
Two of the companies currently offering this service are Image.net and
PA News, via its PixElect service. The companies store images and
monitor when they are used and who they are used by. For the media, this
means not worrying about whether a company can send a photograph; for
the agency and its client, it means huge cost savings.
’Channel 4, for example, has 1,200 images downloaded from its PixElect
site each week - if they went back to sending out hard copy it would be
a huge extra cost,’ says Richard Gleave, sales manager at PixElect.
PA News has a corporate client base of about 30 companies including IBM,
Natwest and The Body Shop. When BA launched its new logo for example, it
directed media enquiries to its PixElect site.
The independent company Image.net was formed three years ago and
distributed over 250,000 pictures last year. The company acts as a
server to ’image consumers’ worldwide wanting photos from clients such
as film and TV companies.
And PR agencies are increasingly using the service, says Image.net
managing director Simon Townsley.
Both companies also run an active service that transmits pictures direct
to picture desks. ’You get Fleet Street-trained picture editors
marketing and placing your image,’ says Townsley.
The advantage of using one of these services rather than just placing
pictures on your own web site is that the media knows exactly where to
go to get images from these sites, and the picture quality is better
than that of normal web sites, where it is usually unsuitable for
The cost is dependent on how many images you want stored, but starts
from pounds 6,500 for 100 images at PA. Image.net will give you a price
based on exactly what you want. As yet, there are only a small number of
companies using these services for PR purposes, but as Townsley and
Gleave point out, it is the way ahead.
IMAGE FINDER: TAKE THE STRESS OUT OF FINDING PICTURES
Once an agency has decided it needs to use pictures in a communications
role, it has to find the right images.
There are two ways of doing this: you can either search through a
library’s files on-line, or you can brief a photo library to do the work
Nick Harris, sales and marketing manager at picture library the Stock
Market says: ’Picture libraries used to charge a search fee, but the
internet has changed all that. The internet is such a great creative
tool, it allows people to do searches themselves. Alternatively, if they
do not want to, we have a fully trained search. We will want to know as
much as we can about the shot you are looking for, for example what does
it show, or what are the people like?’
’Sometimes it helps to also know the client,’ says Wilfred Cass,
chairman of the Image Bank, who says that about 50 per cent of the time,
people are doing their own searches.
Companies like the Stock Market provide pictures for literature such as
corporate brochures. They will often look for conceptual pictures like
handshakes, sunrises and telephone usage. The company will find a
selection of different pictures and then charge according to how the
picture is going to be used.
’The problem has been that a lot of people have not been educated in how
to brief for photograghs,’ says Martin Pittaway, sales manager at Robert
Harding picture library. ’People know what they don’t want, but not what
they do. My staff have design backgrounds so we can understand
Pittaway says PR agencies are best advised to let the library do the
search, but that problems can occur if the brief is not full enough.
’If we have information about what the agency is trying to achieve and
what concept they are looking for as well as what is in the picture,
this really helps,’ he says. ’We can then work in partnership with an
agency.’ He adds that the best way of getting value is to use the same
agency regularly and negotiate a good deal over the fees.
Cass says that PR agencies are now using picture libraries a great deal
more since search fees were abandoned. ’Everyone is getting better at
using pictures, which is important,’ he concludes.
’Pictures are always effective in making a point and exciting people in
a way text alone can’t.’