As Britain braved the storms this week and donned their best brollies and rain-coats politicians raced to the worst hit areas and competed for the highly sought after publicity award of who could stand in the biggest puddle.
The media has recently been full of pictures of politicians looking deeply concerned while knee deep in water as they descend upon the worst floods in 100 years. Their attempt to be seen in the thick of it and to look as though they are doing something has angered the locals who say they all showed up to get a great press photo and soon disappeared. The only ones seen to be doing anything helpful were Royal action heroes Prince William and Harry who were photographed shifting heavy sandbags for local victims.
Meanwhile, the politicians, as well as wearing their concerned expressions were also wearing a variety of footwear; a seemingly trivial detail in a serious story but one which was seized upon gleefully by the media and led to them being labelled as the Westminster “wallies in wellies” – Metro 11th Febhttp://metro.co.uk/2014/02/11/wallies-in-wellies-flood-victims-face-a-new-deluge-of-politicians-wading-through-water-4300496/
The media coverage surrounding these flood visits noted that; Environment Secretary Owen Paterson forgot to bring any wellies at all, Boris sported an extrovert pair with bright red soles, Clegg went for classic greens, Cameron stuck to chic Chipping Norton, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond went for Hunters (the fashion choice of Kate Moss and celebs alike), Nigel Farage tried thigh high waders, whereas Milliband got caught short with a shiny pair of Dunlops that filled with water.
Perhaps there is a cautionary lesson to be learnt by PR advisers; a need to always be alive to the possibilities of inadvertent messages being sent through public images that were intended for a completely different purpose, particularly in situations involving controversy. So, whereas politicians visiting flood sites were aiming to come across as looking sympathetic and helpful, their footwear stole focus and became part of a metaphor symbolizing their political stance and the public perception of them as being out-of-touch, ineffectual and comical.
A recent international example of image misfire has been President Putin with his anti-gay messages prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Journalists immediately contrasted these homophobic messages with the images that Putin likes to portray of himself as a strong leader by taking every opportunity to publish photos of himself in bare-chested “macho” poses whilst horse-riding, fishing and hunting. These self-promoting hyper-masculine images have, however, been widely mocked and led to some very amusing cartoons portraying him as a new gay icon.
Where was the PR adviser brave enough to point out to Putin how these images were likely to be interpreted by the rest of the world? And to warn the polictians racing to the disaster scene that it’s no good just being seen in the right place at the right time if you’re not actually doing anything and may pull focus for all the wrong reasons. The advice for those trying to convey particular messages about themselves or a brand may therefore be: ‘Try to get yourself a PR with a good sense of irony or, failing that, a cartoonist who’s good at spotting the potentially ridiculous’ as the world becomes increasingly more savvy to over-staged and contrived publicity shots.