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The Power of a Photo Op, Or Lack Thereof


So the president claims he’s not going to the Texas border because he’s not into photo ops. And I’m thinking to myself, if he’s not into photo ops, then I’m not into buffets! Fat chance anyone would believe that one.

The truth is, I am into buffets, and the truth is this president “is” into photo ops, and I don’t have a problem with either. That’s why I found his comment so puzzling. This is like the media master dismissing the very medium that made him – a man whose image was as much his message as his message itself.

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In fact, he’s very good at photo ops. Most presidents are. It comes with the territory. It’s what they do. And he’s one of the best at them. So he needn’t demean them. I think he should embrace them, and the importance of them. Because photo ops aren’t just publicity opportunities, they’re “connection” opportunities. And you don’t have to be a president to appreciate them. Some of our best chief executives keenly utilize them.

Soon after the General Motors (NYSE:GM) ignition-switch crisis hit the fan, CEO Mary Barra hit the road, cameras in tow, visiting GM plants, and holding town-hall-style meetings with factory workers to reassure them and clearly, reassure the millions of Americans “watching” her reassuring them. Appearances count.

A generation earlier, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca did the same, holding pep rallies around the country for workers convinced the beleaguered carmaker was going down the tubes. Iacocca insisted otherwise. He later wrote he had his doubts at the time himself, but he never let on, and his now famous in-your-face commercials never let up. Who can forget, “If you can find a better-built car, buy it.” Appearances count.

Just ask Jimmy Carter. Forget that most folks didn’t even know who the heck this former Georgia governor was, running for president of the United States. Carter used his “just plain folks” charm to his advantage. He showed up anywhere and everywhere, exhaustively campaigning in the little-known and at the time, little-appreciated caucus state of Iowa to impress upon residents he knew them, he appreciated them, and ultimately he got the most votes from them. Appearances count.

That’s why John F. Kennedy chose the backdrop of the Berlin Wall during a June 26, 1963 visit to Germany. What better venue to argue for freedom than near a barbaric barrier that senselessly separated it for millions of Germans? That’s not to say, “Ich bin ein Berliner” wouldn’t have registered somewhere else in that city, let’s just say Kennedy’s reminding the world, “I am a Berliner” at that exact location, didn’t hurt. Appearances count.

Bad appearances count as well. President Obama showing up at a solar panel factory to make the visual case for new energy sources seemed like a good idea at the time, until the company, Solyndra, went bankrupt, and his images touring the plant, came back to haunt him.

That’s always the risk with photo ops. They can come back to bite you. President Bush belatedly showing up after Hurricane Katrina, and never erased that initial infamous photo of him earlier surveying the damage from above in Air Force One.

Sometimes being some place counts. That’s why chief executives meet with angry shareholders, and presidents risk wading into angry crowds. They appreciate the risk of going, but they appreciate the greater risk of not going.

Good leaders also appreciate the risk of not acting, even if the problem they’re addressing isn’t of their own making. Back in 1982, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) CEO James Burke had to address one of the most calamitous corporate crises in American history, after a series of murders were pegged to Tylenol capsules that had been poisoned with cyanide.

Never mind, J&J wasn’t responsible for the tampering incidents, and police and FBI agents were combing the country to find who was, Burke took it upon himself to recall ALL Tylenol products from store shelves, and even paid customers for bottles, used and unused, to send them back to the company. He met with community groups, and drug store associations, anyone and everyone to hear their stories, and deliver on immediate changes. Effective that month of October 1982 when the first tampering cases were reported, Burke retrofitted all J&J factories to dump all caplets and replace them with capsules, thereby making them virtually tampering-proof. You can’t stop maniacs, he would say at the time, but you can sure make it difficult as hell for them.

Far from shunning J&J products, the company’s share of the pain reliever market soared. Such was the trust placed in Burke’s resolve and J&J’s committed, and expensive, public effort to make things right. To this day, the company’s quick media reaction serves as the model for corporate crisis behavior – and the irony was and is, J&J wasn’t even the one responsible for the crisis.

That’s the thing about making appearances count. At a minimum, they show you care. And handled well, they show you are connected. The last thing President Obama needs these days is another charge that he’s detached. Playing pool with Colorado’s governor on the eve of his trip to Texas didn’t help to remove the image of a leader playing while the border is burning.

If you think about it, photo ops are just that: opportunities to improve folks’ perception – of their leader, of his resolve, and maybe of the magnitude of a problem.

Sometimes they say photo ops demean a leader. Handled correctly, I think they help define him. The reverse is also true. Bad photo ops or worse, no photo ops, call into question not just the missed opportunity…but the missing leader.

What do you think?

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