The power of imagery in communications

Riding the wave of bigger, better and more pictures online we spoke to three experts, Justin Sutcliffe, Jeremy Waite and Suzanne Salvo to found out why and how internal communication can benefit.

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“Pictures can tell a 1000 words.” We all know it and yet it is only recently that there has been a significant shift towards greater prominence of imagery online. Most significantly across social networking sites.

Google+, in its attempts to rival Facebook, has heavily invested in the imaging side of its social network, making it their USP. It has lightbox integration and basic editing functions built in. Its mobile app puts visuals at its heart as well by allowing users to share photos automatically.

In July, Facebook responded to Google’s changes and announced updates that further boost the prominence given to images. From the very public, very visual cover photo that has now been deployed to most users to more space devoted to images and various ways of filtering your favourite pictures. Facebook now has the largest online archive of digital photos.

Enter Pinterest and Instagram, the former is revolutionising the way we share content across the web and the latter is a photo-sharing network that Facebook is acquiring for a hefty sum, currently standing at $747 million.

Adoption of smartphones has fuelled these developments, 2012 has seen both the US and UK pass the tipping point. The majority of us are using smartphones, capable of shooting quality photographs and uploading them to the world wide web.

In the social media world, high-resolution snaps are here to stay.

But even in more traditional media, this so-called user-generated content has infiltrated broadcast channels and print journalism. Take the most iconic images of London 2012 and the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour.

What is it about images? Why has there been this shift? What does it mean to corporate communications? We spoke to three experts to find out.

Firstly, we spoke to Justin Sutcliffe, a renowned photojournalist whose images are frequently in The Independent, about the power of pictures.

He starts with a commanding stat, “26% of people who start an article will read to the end, everyone see’s the picture.”

“It’s physiological more than anything else,” continues Sutcliffe. “We, humans, are used to absorbing information graphically. Writing is just a way of finding recognisable graphical representations of information. Photography bypasses characters, crosses boundaries and languages. Great pictures don’t need to be explained, that’s the power of imagery.”

Kate and Gerry McCann walk the gauntlet of the media to attend a church service and vigil held for their missing daughter Madeleine at the request of the young people of Praia da Luz. The search for Madeleine McCann (3) who went missing from her family’s rented villa in the Algarve region of Portugal was a source of intense media coverage in Europe and throughout the world. At present her Parents Gerry and Kate are official suspects in the investigation by Portuguese police although no charges have been brought.

But with the age of the digital camera and smartphones, where does that leave the professional photographer? If we all have a camera in our pockets and our own publishers in the form of Twitter and Tumblr, do we need a qualified industry?

“Photography on the face of it is not very difficult, and certain modern cameras make it easier than ever to take good pictures. But people often look at photography from the wrong point of view; photography is a language. Anyone can pick up a translation dictionary, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to speak to fluently, say what they want to say and be well understood.

“Most people can take a picture and occasionally they can take a good picture but the process of being a professional photographer is very different.

“The honesty is in being able to see and record, anticipate and document life in a way that moves people. That’s the purpose of photography; we’re trying to say something to other people. And the joy of it is that it crosses linguistic boundaries, or at least it should do. But to do it well, takes practise.”

Marc Quinn’s controversial new work, “Alison Lapper Pregnant” is a 12 feet tall sculpture of the disabled artist Alison Lapper made from white marble. Alison Lapper was born without arms and with shortened legs but has overcome these obstacles to become a leading artist. The sculpture features the naked, pregnant Alison and occupies the now famous “Fourth Plinth” an empty corner of Trafalgar Square left statueless at the original time of construction through lack of funds. The space is now used as a rotating exhibition for some of the world’s most exiting and contemporary artists.

User-generated content – great snaps or a waste of space?

Suzanne Salvo, of Salvo Photography a veteran corporate photographer, believes the shift in photography is likened to the revolution of desktop publishing.

“Anything that gets people using more images, taking more images, sharing more images is a good thing. By doing that we increase our visual vocabulary. And become better communicators in the realm of imagery. We become better at telling stories because we use them more.”

“The reason it’s taken off is because it’s easy to use. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to manipulate an image you had to have all kinds of special tools in order to do the simplest things.

“Now that it’s available to everyone, it makes us a little more creative and our world a little more fun to play in.”

Justin Sutcliffe is more critical:

“I’m generally really in favour of user-generated content but at some level, somebody with some standard of scruples and morals needs to decide what is and what is not put out there. What we’re seeing at the moment is unregulated and horrible.

“Most members of the public have no restraint, no sense of fairness, nobody is ever going to hold them to account. We’re seeing levels of intrusiveness that even the worst paparazzi would blush at.”

It rings bells with the recent scandal involving photos of Prince Harry, taken with a smartphone.

Grinding mediocrity

“You see this grinding mediocrity,” sighs Sutcliffe, “it debases photography. It gives merit to that which has no merit.” He is quick to admit, “I’m not saying only professionals know how to do it, trust me, I’ve taken some terrible pictures. But there’s a level at which I’ll say, no, let’s do that again. Whereas, there’s none of that filtering in user-generated content.”

Too many pictures are described as ‘amazing’ believes Sutcliffe, “I’ve seen three amazing pictures my whole life. It’s not amazing. It’s an absurd hyperbole over that which is just ok.”

“The more we debase the idea of ‘amazing’, the harder it is to keep the visual literacy high enough in our vocation.”

Corporate Photography tips from Suzanne Salvo
Shoot early in the day – everybody looks better in the morning, there’s no five o’clock shadow, your clothes are nice and crisp and your attitude is better. Everything’s better early in the day. If first this is not possible, get your subject to put on a fresh shirt. There’s something about putting on something specific for a photo-shoot that puts them in that mind set and then start with a compliment. When we photograph people for the first time and we’re prepping for the shoot, we give them a sincere compliment. You find that you build up trust with your subject that will give you better results.

“When they pick out really talented individuals and bring them to our attention, that’s when user-generated content is really laudable,” believes Sutcliffe. Miss Anelia, is one high profile example, “she’s able to capture atmosphere in a way very few seasoned photojournalists do. She harnessed the power of Flickr and it helped turnher photography into a successful business.”

The same could be said for corporate communications too. Salvo recalls the rise of desktop publishing, “When it became available to the corporate communicator everyone started to produce their own brochures. And the result was a lot of really crappy brochures!”

“It’s not just about having the tools readily available and easy to use, it’s about having the skill and the knowledge and the talent to pulll something together. I think we’re in a transition period just now, eventually it’s going to dawn on the communicator that there is so much out there right now. They’ll have to find a way to cut through the noise and that’s going to be with higher quality images.”

What about the words? Where does that leave the humble copywriter?

Jeremy Waite, Head of Social Strategy at TBG Digital, lives and breathes web 2.0. With the hype currently focused on imagery, we asked him where does it leave the wordsmith?

“You can’t assume copywriters are having a harder time now because we don’t want long copy. Copy has developed over the years.”

“Copywriters have got a more interesting job nowadays, with the growth of social media. The brands that have the most engagement usually use just once sentence updates. So you’ve got to get a really good copywriter.”

“Anyone can write a summary paragraph about a new policy or product, very few people can write 140 characters about it.”

Waite suggests internal comms should look at the Pinterest grid-like web design for inspiration.

“Using a billboard design means a copywriter has to focus on the title to encourage readers to click through. If your reader is not interested by the title they’re not going to read the first paragraph anyway. That first sentence is absolutely crucial.”

Waite warns corporate communicators not to get too close to their topic and get carried away writing paragraphs instead of headlines. “It’s not demeaning their content, it’s just breaking it down it into sizeable chunks. It’s about having more respect for your audience.”

A golden union: Art Directors on the IC team?

Perhaps we should be giving greater prominence to images in corporate communications and hire specialists? Waite is in favour, “the best advertising agencies were set up like a team, you didn’t just hire an art director or copywriter; you hired them together, as a team.”

“For a truly social web you should have the visual guy and the word guy – it’s not one or the other. The art director grabs your attention; the copywriter gives you the hook.”

Waite refers to Kevin Roberts’s book, Lovemarks – creating loyalty beyond reason, “That’s the heart of social web; people share emotions, not facts. We’ve got to connect emotionally to our readers, customers or internal audience. Some people will connect through words and some people connect through imagery. When you’ve got the two combined it can be really powerful.”

So what does Waite advise? “IC, corporate comms and PR should have the equivalent of the art director and the copywriter and then they should be locked in the same room together handcuffed together.”