How do you picture public relations?

To engage online audiences you need great visuals. We all know this. So why is so much online content so visually mediocre – and sometimes just plain bad? And why are so many online marketers still using stock photos that convey clichéd images?

It was this story by BuzzFeed’s Nathan Pyle that led to my question. Yeah, universities Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.17.10 AMtend to use a lot of stock photos — photos that present a fantasy world where the student body is diverse and beautiful. (It’s all pretty much bullshit, but it sails through the approval channels.)

As some of you know, I work at a large university, and our folks do a good job with images. Credit a phenomenal (though totally overworked) staff photographers for keeping us away from Shutter Stock.

Yet the program I work for faces a different challenge. You see, we don’t have a campus with tree-lined walkways, and our students — while also diverse and beautiful — never set foot in a classroom and never come to cheer the football team on Saturday afternoon. Our program, a master’s degree in public relations, is 100% online. Our learning communities meet on computer screens and never at the same time.

You got the picture? Yeah, me neither. How does one make an online experience visually compelling — particularly when it involves something as amorphous as public relations studies?

We are visually boring people

Nearly 30 years ago, a visitor to our home asked my then-5-year-old son what his dad did for a living. (I owned my own PR firm in Buffalo, NY.) Response: “He talks on the phone and plays on his computer.”

That, my friends, remains the “picture” of public relations that appears in most marketing materials that try to sell students on this field. Sure, PR has changed in those 30 years, but walk into any PR shop and the predominant image is folks talking on phones and working on computers. If you get lucky, you might spot a presentation or a brainstorming session underway in one of the conference rooms. But visually, we’re not an exciting bunch.

Other fields don’t face these hurdles. Physicians train in operating rooms with lots of high-tech equipment. And cool masks. And blood. The pilots’ classroom is the cockpit of an aircraft. Architects create 3-D models of their ideas and oversee the construction of massive building projects. These are visual fields that can be suggested in one, well-composed photo.

safe_image-1OK. I suppose we could depict a PR person directing a video project, but the visual will say “TV production” or maybe “journalism.” We could capture a PR pro orchestrating a special event, but to me that visual says “hospitality management.”

In PR, we just don’t have any “signature” visuals. Hell, we might as well be accountants (with apologies to my bride).

The two photos you see here — both featuring beautiful people — came from my program’s own sponsored Facebook posts. I can find similar images on our competitor’s advertising, but I’m trying to be fair here. These visuals aren’t terrible, but nor are they safe_imagecompelling. If you clicked on the links, it’s because of the headlines, not the photos.

I suppose there’s a simple solution here, and it involves hiring a creative team to work alongside our digital marketing agency. Someone has to make the message just as important as the analytics that drive our digital machinery. Content has to be a priority, not a commodity.

For the record, we think we know what we’re doing. We’ve performed the market analysis, we know our audience, and we know what they’re seeking. We have a 5-year track record and we’re positioned as a Top 5 player in the niche. But that niche today has 5 times the number of competitors it had in 2011, several of them with really deep pockets. We need to separate ourselves from the pack, and soon.

We have a great story to tell, and some alumni willing to help us tell it. But like every one of our competitors, we don’t have the compelling visuals to drive the message home. If you’d care so suggest some, I’m all ears. Or eyes, as it were.

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So you know I wrote a post similar to this one 5 years ago. We didn’t find an answer then, either. Ignore the dead links. Very common in old blog posts.

3 thoughts on “How do you picture public relations?

  1. Was anything ever done with the video interviews some of us did prior to graduation?

    I should have had someone take photos as I read assignments and wrote papers and projects from all over the world and in the air–Paris, South Africa, Korea, New Orleans (seriously, who wants to sit in a hotel room doing school work when Bourbon St. is a mere 3 blocks away?). Those who work full time while completing the program are a driven bunch, with each “job” influencing and informing the other. Very cliché, but the world was my classroom. Heck I got the inspiration for my very last assignment while hiking in the red rocks of Utah. Lots to work with, it’s a unique program and the perfect fit for someone like me.

    • And I taught many of those classes from an island. An island in my kitchen. I think you got the better of this deal, Lisa. Glad you joined the adventure. Made it a worldly experience.

      Came across this photo after posting the comment. You can earn your degree from anywhere. Even an island. Island Teacher

  2. Bill- your comment holds SO true for me as I complete this degree from my Caribbean home. Outside of that, I’m working on my own website (in my generous amounts of spare time between school and work). I’m LLC’ing and moving my clients under that umbrella. Each time I go to work on the site, I get stuck–visually. Stock images just don’t work for me. It doesn’t capture me, my creativity, or what exactly the PR professional does. I have lots of samples of projects, strategies, client testimonials, photos, Emmy-award winning videos…you get the idea. But none of them capture ME in ACTION. I’m rambling. Thanks for another great post and for another great course at Kent!

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