Monday, June 24, 2013

Getting your arms around road show photos

A marketing communications executive is doing a "road show." Marv and his team are holding learning events for customers in different cities, combining useful seminars and workshops with a little client hospitality.

A major ingredient of public relations is, in fact, food and relaxation. It's a great way to build relationships. Hand out all the screen-wipes and memo clips you like, but most clients and business partners enjoy a beverage, snacks, and some chit-chat in an atmosphere without white boards.

What's wrong with this scenario? The marcom exec leading this adventure occasionally posts photos of himself relaxing with co-workers. Most of whom appear to be happy women. Sometimes, there's hugging or arms-around-a-shoulder. And, as smart as I know Marv is, I keep asking: "Doesn't he know the message these snapshots send?"

The Clock of Nations at Rochester NY Airport
The message I get from his photos: Marv's having too much fun on his company's dime.

(Out of respect, I've chosen not to share or re-post his photos. Or links to pages where they've appeared. Instead, here's a lovely picture of the world's most disturbing clock.)

I'll be blunt: not everyone loves photos of bosses with arms around co-workers. It's collegial, in most cases. But viewed out of context. there's a signal about power hidden in those pictures.

If you're a leader in an organization -- college president, CEO, mayor, senior executive, general, ambassador, Congressional representative -- these photos have a way of haunting you, later on. (One senior leader, upon seeing a picture of himself with an arm around a female colleague who'd won an award, asked me to digitally erase his hand and arm.)

In Marv's photos, he and his cheery co-workers remind me of a skewed version of Bosley and Charlie's Angels. They are cozier than I'd want to be seen. And it doesn't help that their photos have that grainy, "I only had my camera phone" quality. The kind that litter Facebook and Instagram.

As a PR Paladin, I've run hospitality events with attractive-looking clients and colleagues. My Rule No. 5 was ALWAYS carry a camera. Not because my employer sold cameras, but because if I'm taking photos of co-workers and guests, it's difficult to appear in those photos.

As the ad hoc photographer, I could also ask people to put down their wine glasses, adjust their blouses, or straighten their ties for a more business-like appearance. Hey, stuff happens.

Hospitality photos have decreasing PR value. A pretty colleague may convince an editor to run a PR photo, but fewer publications today run shots of clients and executives enjoying wine and what-not. That's probably wise. Too often, photos of too-happy executives and guests send an unintended message.

For a communications executive who's mindful of his or her brand perception when casual photos surface on social media websites, the best advice is: always stand behind the camera.