In PR, It’s All About The Optics

In public relations, we often describe our approach to earned media this way; what we give up in editorial control we make up for in credibility. We can’t always persuade a writer to compose a story exactly the way we want, but a publication’s imprimatur and its digital domain authority can more then make up for that.

We work to control the way our client is perceived in public through strategic counsel, careful planning, message development and interview preparation. So why do so many in the public eye get the “optics” so very wrong?

It’s the optics, stupid!

Here are three ways optics caught up with some boldfaced names this week.

Intentionally alienating

Reviled  “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli just can’t shut up. And this is a case of not only bad optics, PR-wise, but possible legal peril. You see, Shkreli, who made headlines a while back for jacking up the price of an AIDS drug by 5000%, is actually talking publicly ─ and tweeting ─ about his federal securities-fraud trial. He has publicly derided the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, calling them “junior varsity,” and taunted a woman who testified against him. He claimed she couldn’t have been a victim of any crime because she “ended up making money.”

Shkreli’s comments aren’t merely derogatory; they may damage his case with jurors, while reinforcing his reprehensible reputation. We understand the fascination with the “bad-boy” CEO; there’s sometimes a rakish charm thing there. But of late, with these antics and those of the recently booted Travis Kalanick, there is really no upside.  Unfortunately, reputation rehab seems like a bridge too far for Shkreli.

Taking the bully pulpit too literally

The definition of negative optics! Some people really make it too easy. How could New Jersey Governor Chris Christie possibly have thought a day at the beach would go over well with his constituents when most of those beaches are closed to the public due to a state government standoff? He already enjoys a seriously low approval rating of 17%. To compound the arrogance of the images of him en famille on an otherwise empty beach, Christie said, “I don’t apologize for it. I don’t back away from it.” This is the kind of attitude the public and press pounce on. And they have, with Twitter and mainstream media having a field day with negative remarks and brilliant memes like this.
For some, no amount of PR advice will help. Asked what he thought about the kerfuffle, Christie said, “I think my poll numbers show I don’t care about political optics.” It’s true. Christie has built a career as a bully – at one time, for good, going to bat for his state during Hurricane Sandy. But the attitude does him a disservice now and one can’t help but wonder if his potential second act as a sports broadcaster will be enough to satisfy his ego.

Wrestling with the Presidency?

Donald Trump’s need to lash out at those who criticize him was fine when he was a media-hungry NY businessman. But as the leader of the country, again, optics matter. The thought of any statesman creating a Twitter video in which he is shown body-slamming a figure who represents CNN is incomprehensible, or at least it used to be.

But that’s exactly what Trump did to celebrate CNN’s firing of three journalists based on bad reporting. The reaction was as expected for a country as polarized as ours. Detractors called it out, and some denounced the video as dangerous, warning it could incite attacks or threats against news media. Supporters lauded the move as “modern-day presidential,” citing Trump’s savvy use of social media. We don’t know if it was savvy, exactly, but it was provocative, and these are the kind of optics that work with his base.  Face it, fans of the President only appreciate him when he says to his critics, But I’m president, and they’re not.

Based on the boorish behavior and resulting negative optics of the three examples discussed above, it’s no wonder a recent poll shows that Americans feel civility is in decline. But it also may spur certain business leaders to opt for the aggressive or negative in a bid for a bigger spotlight. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals  to reign in provocative behavior a client might attempt. Those who want to cause a stir on social media  just for the sake of attention, for example, need to weigh the pros and cons. We have never agreed with the “any publicity is good publicity” maxim.  Give a lot of thought before pushing an aggressive public posture; the potential for such actions to backfire likely outweighs whatever media attention garnered.

Finally, on a lighter note, Disney’s famed “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride had been getting flack for years due to the “optics” of the ride. All those depictions of pirates leering at wenches was just so 19th century. Well, the Disney brass has listened, and the ride has been updated for today’s  sensibilities. In addition to changing the scene featuring pirates chasing women around a building, the ride also got rid of the infamous “wife auction.” In a bow to feminism, the replacement scene features a female pirate auctioning off stolen gold and jewelry. So it’s clearly still okay for pirates to pillage and plunder, but not, as the famous song goes, “kidnap and ravage.” It’s all about the optics!

For Mrs. Obama, This Vacation Isn’t Free

There’s that word again. Optics. The First Lady and daughter Sasha departed last week on a whirlwind trip to Spain, where they stayed at a posh Ritz Carlton-owned hotel with friends. The press made it out like a Sex And The City-style girls’ weekend of lavish shopping and touring, finished off by lunch with the Spanish royal family. Strolling through the Mediterranean markets in a stunning one-shoulder Jean-Paul Gaultier top, Mrs. Obama was tracked by a multilingual pack of paparazzi. But on Friday, government unemployment figures revealed that 131.000  more  U.S. jobs have been lost. Bad optics.

Since her return, Mrs. Obama’s trip has been criticized by the blogosphere and press. The knocks on the vacation are pretty diverse. They include “Michelle Antoinette” behavior during a downturn; emasculating the POTUS by missing his birthday; and even racial insensitivity for choosing to tour a country where our own State Department warns that “Afro-Americans” are subject to “racist prejudices.”

Whoa. Slow news week? Well, it’s August, after all. The White House didn’t respond directly to the backlash, except to try to correct inaccuracies and exaggerations, like the report that 40 friends had tagged along at the taxpayers’ expense (it was more like three.) But, both David Axelrod and Democratic party chairman Tim Kain sought to defend the junket as an educational trip for young Sasha. That was a bit lame. Axelrod’s response, in which he points out that people in the public eye are “human beings,” was fuzzy. (Meaning that human beings need relaxation? That we all make mistakes, because we’re only human, or that, being human, we want our daughters to experience Marbella?) Better to stay silent, leak the real details of the trip’s costs, and suck it up.

As some columnists have pointed out, part of the problem is our national schizophrenia around the role of First Lady. Should she be a silent and smiling helpmeet for the President?  Anodyne goodwill ambassador and occasional presidential surrogate? Post-feminist role model and global fashion icon?

We want it all, of course. And the President’s wife is probably all of the above, and more, depending on the woman herself , the circumstances, and the relationship between the two. The White House’s mistake this time was in not matching the role to the need. A PR-savvy team like theirs should have known how the trip would play to the public.

And maybe they did. The days of summer days are winding down, and this, too, will be a distant memory come September, or sooner. It seems the First Family’s next scheduled vacation is closer to home. At the end of the month, they’ll spend a week on the Gulf Coast, probably with plenty of photographers on hand. And maybe without the Gaultier. After all, it’s good optics.


Have We Been Fair To Tony Hayward?

There’s an expression related to PR that I particularly dislike. It’s “optics,” and like most buzzwords, it’s a bit pretentious and unnecessary. But when I heard that Tony Hayward will be replaced as CEO of BP, it popped into my head. Good optics, that is. Hayward’s been sent to Siberia (he’ll join a BP joint venture in Russia) while a new guy – a more marketable one, by all appearances – takes the helm.

Not only is Dudley BP’s first American CEO, he was born in Mississippi and spent part of his childhood in the Gulf region. Though he’s lacking a Gulf coast accent (too bad, that), he’s being cast as the anti-Hayward. And not being British does help. A cartoon depicted Hayward being tutored by a PR firm to lose his British accent to better connect with Americans. That ruddy-cheeked English appearance and crisp, yet gaffe-prone speech helped make him the poster child for corporate incompetence and indifference.

But “optics” implies a certain shallowness. It’s about image. Just the PR. Is there a more objective way to look at Hayward?  He claims he’s been “demonized and vilified” by the U.S. media, painting his departure as a necessary sacrifice for the long-term good of the company. He told The Wall Street Journal that he was villainized “for doing the right thing” although what he did right is still a question.

There’s an ocean-sized gap between his image here and in the U.K. People buy him drinks and express sympathy for the way he’s been treated by the whole mess. Moved to tears by a standing ovation during a recent visit to the home office, Hayward seemed a symbol of a departing warrior than a bumbling chief.

So, is the perception gap about geography, or misplaced nationalism? Not really. Hayward was respected internally as a competent executive and the right man to clean up BP’s spotty safety record after John Browne’s tenure. And there was a striking absence of UK investors calling for his ouster. Analysts and stakeholders who studied his performance and questioned him directly over his time as CEO were largely silent. Clearly, he was doing something right before disaster struck.

So, has Hayward been a scapegoat? Of course, but as CEO, he’s has been the top mouthpiece, and symbol, of corporate behavior, or, in this case, misbehavior. When the storm hit, his ability to articulate the way forward was absent. It wasn’t executive performance, the accent, or the pedigree that doomed him. It was a fatal lack of communication skills.

In leaving him in place to absorb the public rancor through the worst of the crisis, like a sponge soaking up toxic mess before a fresh one arrives, BP actually may have limited its downside, both financially and in a PR sense. But, as a (British) fund manager says about Dudley, “he’s not a new broom.”  His timing is pretty good, and his narrative is appropriate, but the problem with BP’s incoming CEO is that he’s really an insider who represents more of the same.

The whole changing of the guard is just that – a rearrangement. BP hasn’t gone nearly far enough to send a message of change. It’s varied the face and the accent behind the PR mess, but that’s about it. Bad PR can bring down a CEO, but its opposite – nice optics – can’t ensure success.  So, until real ecological and workplace reform takes place, it’s a prettier picture, but business as usual.