Managing Optics: From Politics to Corporate PR

Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management.

Whether tropical storm or hurricane, Isaac is nevertheless barreling its way toward New Orleans, disrupting the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida and creating headaches for those whose job it is to manage the public’s perception of its proceedings.

When people’s lives and homes are threatened, no one wants to be seen as partying and living it up while others suffer.  But here’s the thing: Republicans will be partying and celebrating and living it up at their convention, as they should. It’s part of the long tradition of national party conventions. They get their turn, and then so will the Democrats.

So yeah, no matter what happens in New Orleans there will be a party. But what they want to do is manage the optics. It’s the craft of wizened PR folks and politicos alike, and it’s all about telegraphing a message that’s acceptable to the general public while masking that which might not be.

Consider the still-lingering Great Recession and the behavior of major financial institutions widely credited for its start. As senior execs were hauled before Congress or spotted doing the perp walk after the crash of Lehman, the national meetings of the country’s biggest banks were moved from “fun” locations like Las Vegas or Orlando to more serious locations like Chicago. It just looked better (and the bankers were saved from ruin.)

Or during the debates about federal loans to shore-up the faltering auto industry. When it was pointed out that the CEOs showed up before Congress with their hats in hand via private jet, these same execs arrived at future meetings driving fuel-efficient models of cars manufactured by their companies (they, too were saved from ruin).

To reiterate, these companies didn’t eliminate perks like lavish sales meetings or corporate jets; they just obscured them from view by highlighting those instances of something more palatable to the public.

But the public isn’t as easily fooled as they once were. Having seen this magic act once too many times, people have learned to train their eyes on the magician’s sleeve and away from whatever diversionary tactics he puts on display.  And to be frank, most times the public doesn’t really care much about the truth of the matter –these days, they just don’t want to be pandered to. Playing games with the public only deepens their already entrenched cynicism.

As in all things these days, it’s so much better to be honest and authentic in everything you do. Assuming your motivations are logical and defensible, the public will understand. And if you happen to be throwing a quadrennial party that for the second time in a row is disrupted by a hurricane, I’ll give you a pass on the optics. So will anyone else who happens to be watching – which, because of the whole cynicism thing, probably won’t be a lot.

Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite. You can also check out his blog, Daily Casserole.

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