Inside the Profession PR Training

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: How Visual Communications Will Transform PR

Let’s start with an admission. I’ve had a love affair with photography for much of my life.

From that summer day spent along the St. Lawrence River, when my mother handed me her palm-sized camera loaded with 110 film, and I stopped time with the press of a button. The afternoon I finally developed my own film, enveloped by the acrid yet welcoming smell of the darkroom. And my days as the director of consumer digital public relations at Kodak, launching a plethora of game-changing products while the world’s first-ever digital camera rested in my office cabinet.

So it’s fair to say that the beauty of a captured image isn’t only in my eyes. It’s in my blood.

For a number of years, communicating visually was a lonely exercise, constrained not by desire, but the technology at our disposal. Thankfully the public relations industry has been catching up at a rapid pace, enabled by democratizing creative tools, seemingly limitless bandwidth, and a desire to pack more information into a smaller window available for consumption.

A picture has always been worth 1,000 words, and we’re finally writing at speed.

Gaze upon our arsenal of visual storytelling devices, and you’ll be mesmerized at the sheer volume and variety. We have methods to capture light like never before, from GoPro HD video cameras to entirely new breeds of devices such as the Lytro. We can edit our creations in seconds on our phones, tablets and laptops, with ease of use that is almost magical in its application. We can push them across space and time to millions, literally at the speed of light.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Intelligent Images

Let’s look at intelligent images, and their implications for the PR industry. Imagine if every photo ever taken was suddenly and automatically tagged with the people appearing in it, location and other details – all searchable by anyone and everyone.

Putting on my crisis communications hat, I cringe. Events, meetings, and encounters that various people from your organization had over the years – fleeting moments never meant to be preserved for posterity, except in a few innocuous snapshots – will be cataloged, analyzed and studied. Who was there. Who was left out. Who was meeting whom.

Brace yourself – this is already taking shape, with auto-identification of subjects in pictures now being implemented on platforms such as Facebook, using its DeepFace facial recognition technology. This isn’t only for new uploads, but with retroactive application to all of the photos in your account.

The Fleeting Message

For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. A truism in your high school physics class, and a truism in PR today.

So even as Facebook is breathing life and perhaps unwanted detail into your old pics, the rise of ephemeral imaging is providing some counter-balance.

Ephemeral what?

In layman’s terms, the here today, gone in a second apps popularized by Snapchat, Slingshot and others – and which are gaining steam, followers and active users as the digital community desperately tries to outrun having their every move tracked.

Where there’s an app, there’s a drive to monetize it, which means that emerging and major brands alike stand to gain from participating. Yet because the images and associated content are fleeting, making the visual content highly memorable becomes all the more important.

The standard stock image of your product with a boring caption simply won’t cut it. Ditto for that sizzle reel that even puts your account team to sleep after 30 seconds. You need to get in. Go big. Get out. You need to not only inform, but entice and entertain.

And guess what. You’re going to be doing more of it, as ironically, the ephemeral is here to stay.

Optimizing for the Digital Eye

You gotta’ love Google. Only this company could essentially pull a product from market by saying it “graduated” from its phase one testing.

Google Glass, we hardly knew you.

But just because Glass is back behind the gates of the Googleplex doesn’t mean it’s dead. Far from it. Wearables are coming on strong, and integrated, always-on video and still capture devices will be a central part of the experience.

With that in mind, are your colleagues prepared to have their every public – and sometimes private – moves recorded, logged and indexed by hundreds to thousands of these devices every day? It’s a scary proposition, but it’s coming.

Now let’s not forget to factor in new type of displays like Glass and imitators. Is your content wearable-optimized? A visual on an iPhone 6 will be markedly different than what you’d want to present on the forthcoming iWatch screen, with its limited real estate. Now jump ahead, and ask what that same visual story would look like on a heads-up display embedded in a contact lens – essentially a virtual 110-inch screen floating just inches from your eyes.

Managing What Matters

A proliferation of images should give rise to innovators eager to help make sense of them. That’s why I’ve been keeping watch on Ditto Labs. This start-up is posed to make tracking visuals across digital platforms – and gaining high-value insights about trends and relationships – as easy as logging into any other of our industry’s monitoring platforms.

Want to see how a particular brand image is being used in a specific region? Curious as to what sports team logos are most associated with your target demographic? Need to understand who’s dominating discussions on visual-centric platforms where captioning is non-existent? Now you can.

Maybe it was fate that both The Harley School’s Aimee Lewis – with whom I’m presenting Eyes on the Prize as part of the PRSA webinar series on Tuesday, March 24 – and I ended up living in Rochester, N.Y. It’s a city dominated by pictures, from being the birthplace of consumer photography, Xerography, and Cinemascope lenses that gave rise to widescreen movies, to modern day advances in satellite and aerial photography, digital sensor R&D, and healthcare imaging. We’re in the center of the storm.

But as communicators, we’re all in that center. We have the privilege to grasp new visual technologies before us, to make sense of them, to deploy them, and to explain them to our peers. Moreover, we have the responsibility to use them in an ethical manner, and to take action against those who don’t.

There’s no stopping time anymore – only the chance to jump in and help shape the very future of our profession, a few million pixels at a time.

Mike McDougall, APR, is president of McDougall Communications. He is a former communications executive with Bausch & Lomb and Eastman Kodak Company, and now consults with technology, healthcare and professional service organizations worldwide as part of his firm’s broader offerings. He can be reached at or via Twitter at @MikeMcDoug.


For more on this topic, join Mike McDougall, APR, and Aimee J. Lewis for their March 24 webinar, “Eyes on the Prize: Shaping the Future of Visual Communications.”

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Mike McDougall, APR

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