Monday, 7 January 2013

When a photo opp backfires

Do you remember the scenes of President Obama hugging victims of Superstorm Sandy?
If you missed the photos at the time, Google images has pages and pages of them.
One of the most memorable images was of him hugging Donna Vanzant of New Jersey who lost everything when the storm swept over her marina. She gave a compelling interview tonight on Radio 4's PM Show.
Donna described how the morning after Sandy hit arriving at her marina to find it swarming with secret service agents and to be told that the President was going to visit.
'I was told not to clear anything up,' she said, 'because he wanted to see the worst of the worse.' It also happened to be a week before the presidential election that would see Obama secure a critical second term.
Donna explained that she started crying as soon as Obama started walking towards her and he then extended his arms to give her a hug.
Obama promised something he probably shouldn't have - that her marina would get re-built. Now two months down the line, it looks like the help he promised is not going to materialise.
Donna understandably feels disappointed in the president and says that people have said he was using her for a 'photo opp'. Her assessment of what happened doesn't go that far but you can hear the bitterness in her voice, and it would be fair to say the president's reputation in her eyes has been tarnished.
It reminded me that during my time as a journalist, if I heard about a visually strong story, I'd send the photographer round before I rang the Council or whoever was responsible for it. I knew if I sent the photographer after I'd spoken to them, they had the opportunity to sort it out before we got the picture. If we missed it, it would weaken the story.
As comms practitioners, we need to respect people's feelings and lives and recognise that no-one is just a 'photo opp'. As well as being entirely cynical and manipulative, it can backfire badly, as it has now on Obama, making him look like he cared more about getting re-elected than someone who had lost her livelihood. Being genuinely caring and authentic, particularly when people are in a state of emotional stress, will always beat any set up photo opportunity.

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