This week brings another election day to my community, providing an annual reminder for me of the great democracy in which we live, and why I am glad I don’t work in politics. I’ve got many good reasons for not getting involved in politics, but that doesn’t stop me from paying close attention to political campaigns from the largest national elections to the smallest campaigns for school board.
In the PR business, there is a lot to be learned just by watching political campaigns. While we can learn new things, perhaps even more often, we can learn what not to do. Case in point: optics.
How many times have you seen a news story or a photo of a political speech, and behind the politician is a group of people representing a cross-section of demographics most affected by the topic of the speech? That’s optics.
Or when you see a political rally and there are signs everywhere, the crowd seems to cheer on cue, and the cameras seem focused on the first ten rows that are filled. But what you can’t see is that the rest of the arena is empty, and when the cameras aren’t rolling, the cheering crowd is allowed to “stand down” and quietly go back to their smart phones. Every now and then, the cameras pan to the empty seats. That qualifies as “bad optics.” And a bad set of optics can kill a candidacy.
No one provides a better example of this than one-time presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
When he was running against then Vice President George Bush, Sr., in 1988, he participated in a photo op where he was required to don a military helmet and ride in a tank. Something about the image of Mr. Dukakis in that helmet was largely regarded as less than presidential. Late-night comedians had a field day, comparing this very serious candidate to cartoon character Snoopy in his Red Baron outfit. The imagery, or optics of that moment was effectively used by the Bush campaign in an ad to raise doubts about Dukakis’s mettle as a Commander in Chief.
Those optics, along with a poor debate showing and some other factors helped set the stage for Mr. Dukakis to lose the race.
The moral for those of us in PR is that optics matter. The takeaway for us is to think about how things will look, or should look when we plan press events, arrange for video or photo shoots, and create publications and other deliverables.
I remember one veteran political consultant describing optics this way: “If we’re announcing a bridge repair bill, we do it next to a bridge that needs to be fixed,” he said, “rather than doing it in an office or a conference room, removed from the community and the voters.”
It’s not just about the words, or even just the photos. It’s about what all of it combined is saying. What is the message that is being delivered intentionally or unintentionally?
The goal then is to make sure that to the extent we can plan for it, to make sure that everything in the foreground, background and side-to-side – and even the sound of the event – reinforces the messages we want to deliver.
As we continue to get bombarded with political news coverage, ads and other material, try paying attention to the optics the campaigns are trying to create. See what you think works, and what does not and why. Then think about how those lessons can be used in your own communications efforts.