A picture tells a thousand words

An analysis of the importance of pictures in media relations

It was a Celine-inspired pastel pink coat - that will not be available in the shops until the end of July. But on a Wednesday in May, the Daily Telegraph used a picture of the £85 wool coat not once, not twice, but three times across the paper. It made the front page, the fashion editor's column and the business section.
 
That one picture could yet be the high point of chief executive Mark Bolland's efforts to turn around our view of Marks & Spencer's clothes. But the fact that the image was plastered over so many national newspapers has created huge expectations of the forthcoming autumn-winter collection.
 
In the past, pictures have tended to be an afterthought in the communications strategy. Something that is fixed up hastily, after days spent fiddling with the words and the press release.
 
Yet the right image can transform a story and its position in a paper or magazine. In fact, in this age of iPad editions, blogs and news websites, pictures are more important than ever before.
 
Many news websites will have a carousel of images, meaning there are more opportunities for pictures to be used, but just because there are more images, and they are changed more frequently, the quality of imagery still needs to remain high.
 
Telling a story
 
Claire Southeard, partner and managing director of Bell Pottinger Wired, an agency that focuses on digital content, says: 'Online picture editors are just as discerning - if not more so - as the pressure to steal digital audiences away from their competitors increases. Don't over-brand it. Don't over-complicate it and always, always have a professional photographer, with editorial credentials, take the shot.'
 
The best photos to sell in to news organisations are images that tell a story without the need for any words. Southeard continues: 'The right picture can sum up a situation so vividly that you don't even need to read the headline. Many people will struggle to forget the shot of a man tenderly supporting a woman out of a London tube station with a burn mask over her face on 7/7.
 
'A photo should get to the heart of the people in the story because ultimately that's what other people want to read about. We don't care about buildings that need saving, or men in suits shaking hands. Show us the children who will benefit from a charitable donation made by the large company, and the page or screen will come alive.'
 
Counter-intuitive images are also great. A picture that surprises - by uniting two elements which do not normally belong together - usually makes for a good photo.
 
Malcolm Padley, director of corporate communications at Rentokil Initial, knew this when he put together a new image library for the pest control and cleaning company. 'We are a people business: we have 60,000 people in 60 countries. Yet when I joined, all I could see was pictures of vans. So we set about communicating stories of what we do, through images of our people.'
 
Rentokil chose Matthew Lloyd, winner of the 2009 Times/Canon Young Photographer of the Year award, because Padley wanted someone with good editorial nous. 'He's proven to be terrific and has taken some great images, visiting many parts of the company.'
 
Images have multiple uses
 
Rentokil now has an online library of more than 50 images, which has had more than 100,000 unique visits since its launch last year.
 
The images have generated national newspaper coverage but have also been used across other channels, including internal communications and the front cover of the annual report.
 
'It's really improved the story telling for internal communications and brought the intranet to life. When we created the image library we knew that a series of supplements on facilities management were going to be published in the nationals, so we targeted those supplements and got great take-up,' Padley says.
 
The breadth of images in the library has even surprised Rentokil's people. It has demonstrated internally the diversity of activities people in the company are involved in.
 
Padley adds that he is conscious that some of the images have a limited shelf life, perhaps just two years. 'We do need to refresh the images from time to time and devise a new set of stories to create momentum,' he says.
 
Social media has also been a strong delivery method for the images. They have been used on Facebook and Twitter to great effect. The images have also been used by sales teams to improve the look of tender documents, so may even have helped to secure new business.
 
For Padley, the £19,000 cost of creating the image library has represented 'fantastic value'. 'It really has changed the look and feel of what we do,' he says.
 
Eight years ago, SAB Miller, the brewing company that operates across six continents and owns brands like Peroni and Pilsner Urquell, also took a very deliberate decision that striking pictures would be a key part of its communications.
 
Nigel Fairbrass, director of communications and reputation, explains: 'We had a difficulty in that we are not a big household name in the UK; we have a relatively small commercial presence here. All our brands are very strong but very local to where they are.'
 
The library of 984 images has been created by a number of photographers under the guidance of creative director Ed Robinson, founder of OneRedEye. The images range from shots of friends in British pubs drinking Pilsener Urquell, to pictures of Zambian women carrying water from a pump installed by one of SAB Miller's local breweries.
 
The style is reportage and the photos aim to capture real people, not models, in genuine situations
 
'Pictures and content is rapidly becoming the most important way we communicate our story. It's not just about getting mainstream media pick up, they are also used for internal communications, by bloggers and websites,' says Fairbrass. 
 
Enlivening annual results
 
When the company's full year results were recently announced, the story was covered in every paper and many used pictures from the library.
 
SAB Miller tries to do three to four shoots a year in different markets, depending on which brands need to be updated or are likely to be talked about.
 
More recently it has started doing photography tours - selecting a region and capturing a number of countries at once. It has just photographed images from Africa and will do Latin America later this year. The photographer rarely knows who they will be photographing before a shoot - they arrive at a location, which could be a bar, brewery or farm, and work with whoever is there at the time.

 

To demonstrate its commitment to good photography, SAB Miller is also in its fourth year of sponsoring the UK Picture Editors Guild Awards.

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Stephanie Mountifield, communications executive for SAB Miller, who oversees the image library on a day-to-day basis, says that since building the library the company has learned some important points.
 
'Open access for all users is best because picture desks prefer not to have to worry about usernames and passwords, which take time to fill in. We make sure that tagging is accurate and detailed for best search results and you can filter by country or brand to improve browsing. The images also have metadata embedded, so once downloaded the filename and metadata are still meaningful and link back to SAB Miller.'
 
The images include a selection of landscape and portrait sizes - even of the same shot if it's good enough - and are print resolution, although they are compressed to speed up the download process.
 
Mountifield adds: 'We looked at Flickr and other photo sharing platforms as alternative options, but choose to have our own bespoke library so that we could include all these points and ensure integration with our corporate website.'
 
Relationships matter
 
SAB Miller also tries to get to know picture desks' individual preferences and develop a face-to-face relationship with them - that might involve some time spent working with the desk, taking them for a drink or even lunch.
 
But SAB Miller's commitment to its image library does not come cheap. 'It's probably one of the more expensive things that we do. These guys have to get around some fairly difficult areas, in faraway places,' Fairbrass says.
 
Looking to the future, Fairbrass wants to use the images in multimedia platforms and is looking at the potential for augmented reality and 3D images.
 
Stewart Goldstein, a creative director at image agency Newscast, which has taken photographs for more than 70 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies, says that there is still a misunderstanding of the value of images. 'The picture is the first thing that people will see. Papers probably receive between 30 and 50,000 images a day, but there are only 32 picture slots in most editions, so it is vital to have the right shot for the right publication,' he says.
 
Newscast will often get buy-in from a publication before the shot is even taken. The same picture can be used in the Guardian and The Sun but it will be used in very different styles - so Newscast will shoot a picture in all styles.
 
Recent images taken for the launch of the Shard, Western Europe's tallest tower, were used in more than 400 publications globally.
 
While the traditional 'stuffy' pictures of the chairman in a suit are still required in a library to some extent, papers increasingly want to see a reportage style picture or a product in use. 'Picture editors do not have time to go to individual websites and they need to have the best resolution. They know that they can get everything they want in one place from us,' he says.
 
Finally, it all comes down to old-fashioned good relations. Sue Connolly, picture editor at The Times, says: 'I'm good friends with a guy who does Greggs' PR. We speak four to five times a month. He's honest with me. I am with him. He's had four front pages and one business front since we started talking. That's good PR!'
 
PANDAS ON A PLANE
 
It is not every day that a picture of two giant pandas reclining in first class on a British Airways flight reading High Life and enjoying afternoon tea arrives in the in-box, but, as Michael Johnson, consumer PR manager for the airline, knows, sometimes you need to make the picture desk smile to grab their attention.
 
The image, along with one of two pandas with suitcases waiting to board their flights, accompanied a press release about the launch of British Airways' special fares to Chengdu, capital of China's Sichuan province, in September.
 

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All tickets for the new London to Chengdu flights, the first new Chinese route to be launched by British Airways since it started flying to Shanghai in 2005, will feature the number eight.
 
It is 'always difficult' to attract attention for press releases about fares, concedes Johnson, which means the communications department have to look for an associated image that will sell the story. Chengdu is home to the giant panda.
 
'Sometimes stories need a little nudge,' explains Johnson. 'Why do newspapers sometimes carry the picture but not the story? A picture has to sell the story. It has to engage. It has to be shocking, amusing or basically give life to the story.'
 
Airlines, he explains, will always be associated with planes, but what else do they do? 'Fundamentally, we bring people together,' he says. 'We are always looking for images that are a little off kilter. You have got to get the news desk to smile. It is a struggle for people in PR.' Dull pictures can create the impression that the accompanying story is dull.
 
To commemorate British Airways' association with Comic Relief, for example, the airline created images of five people apparently running on the check in desks. 'It's got to be unusual,' says Johnson. 'Newspapers are ever more demanding, so you have to be wily with the images when it comes to a PR story. We don't get it right every time, but sometimes you come up with a great idea - it's the right picture at the right time.'
 
But key to all of this, says Johnson, is the need to establish and maintain good relations with picture desks. 'We are in constant touch with them,' he explains. 'We are always finding out the stories that they want, and what will and what don't work for the news desks. They want images that will make the story come to life.'
 
SUE CONNOLLY, PICTURE EDITOR AT THE TIMES, OFFERS ADVICE
 
What not to do
 
1. I hate PRs who push send on their email and then hit the phones I'm Alex from blah blah pr, I'm sure you've seen my email.
 
2. Include low resolution images with emails. Send all the information in one go, we're not going to chase you. You're selling to us, not us to you.
 
3. Don't say We would like to offer you an exclusive unless you are. Picture desks talk, I know what you've offered The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and even the Western Mail.
 
4. After we have received your pictures, please don't call every hour from 11 till 5. Every paper has an afternoon conference, every paper then takes at least two hours to decide what they would like to use. Nothing goes on any pages until 7pm.
 
What to do
 
1. Get good photography. If you want front of shop, pay for a decent snapper. You own that material after they've shot it so get your money back: use, reuse and if there is someone famous in the images and you've not signed image rights, syndicate it. Cha-ching!
 
2. Get first names of people on picture desks, ask to speak to that contact and build up a relationship.
 
3. Call early once (!) and explain. The early person on the desk always sorts the day's highlights, the picture editor seeks advice from this person. The early person sells ideas to the editor, picture editor and department heads.
 
4. Send the picture editor as much free stuff as possible