I know what I am good at and what I am not good at. For example, I consider myself a pretty good writer and PR strategist. Both of those convictions are regularly reinforced by the fact that I get invited to write professionally and I continue to be employed in the PR industry. On the other hand, I am pure ass-monkey when it comes to dreaming up creative PR “tactics” such as events, stunts and location campaigns. My creativity just doesn’t manifest itself in that way, no matter how hard I try. In Singapore I once famously presided over a brainstorm where the best idea to emerge was firing the local MD of a multinational technology company out of an enormous cannon, an idea that I think owed more to a great deal of overwork and suppressed resentment than any creative inspiration. I had a vision of him sailing through the air trailing smoke and tattered clothing while yelling, “you’re fiiirrrred!” in my direction. I did not include this idea in my recommendations to the client.
Among the various things that I am bad at dreaming up is photo opportunities. This is largely because I despise staged photo opportunities and all they stand for. If PR is sometimes guilty of creating fake news (although in our defense, we also often create real news), it is regularly guilty of creating fake news photography. And it’s not just corporate PR that is guilty of this. Think of every photo you’ve ever seen of two wooden diplomats standing side by side, clasping hands and forcing smiles as flash guns sizzle. Do I need to see a photo of Condi Rice and Ehud Olmert shaking hands to drive home the point that, yes, they actually met? Probably not. They met. I believe you.
Whenever we have a launch event for a client –be it a product launch, new facility or even a partnership announcement– there always has to be a photo opp. I can understand this; a photo can help to sell a story and some publications that won’t run a full story might still run a photo and caption, which can be just as good for us. Still, it often ends up being pure torture for me. A favorite technique of mine is to palm the entire responsibility for the photo opp off on the event management company, which is often better at dreaming such stuff up anyway. Still, that doesn’t always make for a complete escape. I once went through a week of pure hell with one MNC in China, going back and forth on an acceptable photo opp for a leadership transition announcement. The idea had been proposed by the event company, but it was we who had to haggle every conceivable detail of coloring, placement and final design with the client. The final result was, I have to admit, not bad. But I nearly committed suicide getting there. I also worked on an event where a bunch of executives had to assemble a large, block-like puzzle device to symbolize various components fitting together in harmony. Trust me, you never want your photo-opp to involve too many guys in suits bending over.
The brutal reality is that 90% of photo opps are completely uncreative. I have long since lost track of the number of ribbon-cuttings, ground-breakings and laying of hands on plasma spheres I have attended or –worse– had a role in orchestrating. The plasma sphere, or light ball, is a local favorite. Many launches or announcements, such as new partnerships, are abstract. You’re not launching the A380 or a new sports car. There is nothing physical to unveil, just an idea. But clients still want a “moment” that can both symbolize the launch and provide a photo opp. An orb-shaped light or one of those plasma spheres is a common dodge. At the appropriate moment, all the executives on stage put a hand on the orb, which lights up. Simultaneously a backdrop or plaque or obelisk or some such totem is unveiled or dramatically lit. A fanfare swells to fill the hall. Flashbulbs pop. PR consultants exhale with relief. Everybody goes home safe to their spouses, pets and children.
Of course, it’s all dull as shit and, in the end, profoundly meaningless. And the photos that result, while they sometimes get run by content-starved news organizations, are generally not the kind of thing to make a photo editor snap upright in his chair and get on the phone to the page-one editor. The impression on most readers is probably similarly null and void, beyond making sure the client’s logo –always part of the design– drifts past their eyeballs yet one more time in the grand river of noisy clutter that is modern media.
So, as agreed all around, I am an ass-monkey when it comes to dreaming up photo opps that are creative and practical. But I am pretty decent at dreaming up photo opps that are thoroughly impractical but entertaining. There are so many things that I desperately want to make happen the moment all those executives lay their hands on the plasma ball. Here, for your edification, are the ones I most wish I could stage:
- Instead of a plasma ball or harmless light ball, I’d like to have all the executives lay their hands on the sphere of a Van de Graf generator, making all their hair stand on end and their clothing bunch up. For extra fun, we could ground them simultaneously.
- At the moment they all touch the ball I’d like to drop upon them an enormous, trapezoidal weight with “20 Tons” stenciled on the side. As a Wile E. Coyote variation, I’d also consider dropping a grand piano acceptable.
- At the moment of launch I’d like to open a trap door that plunges all the executives into a well-lit tank of ravenous saltwater crocodiles. Tiger sharks –a la Thunderball– also acceptable. Whichever is handy.
- At the moment of launch, I’d like the curtain behind to executives to rise on a topless revue in the style of the Moulin Rouge. We could serve absinthe to all the attendees to sell in the effect.
- At the moment of launch a squad of professional dominatrixes with riding crops would rush onto the stage and thoroughly spank all the attending executives.
- Variation: At the moment of launch a high school football squad would rush onto the stage, give everyone wedgies and then upend them into nearby trash cans filled with cafeteria refuse. I’ve seen this happen, so I know how dramatic the effect can be.
- At the moment of launch, the curtain at the back of the stage would drop to reveal…Marilyn Manson, live in concert! (No one has the budget for this, which is a pity. I think several multinational brands could benefit by closer association with Marilyn Manson, although whether he would benefit is debatable.)
- At the moment of launch, lasers, animatronics, rear projection and cleverly designed scrims could be used to present the effect of all of the attending executives being rapturously assumed bodily into heaven. After all, from the speeches you’d think that was what about to happen.
- At the moment of launch the presiding PR consultant is fired out of a cannon (it’s only fair).
- And, for that special Chinese flavor, at the moment of launch I’d like cages to drop open, releasing twenty rabid pandas onto the stage. No one would ever forget that.
I realize that many of the suggestions above might be interpreted as displaying a degree of hostility toward my clients. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Most of my clients are genuinely very nice people to work for, and I want only the best for them. But if you want to make an impression in this over-mediated world, you need to be prepared to go out on a limb. Plus, I grew up watching violent cartoons (per my Wile E. Coyote reference above) and suffer the lingering psychological effects. But look at the upside. A few events like this and not only will I be able to throw the 车马费 overboard, but I figure I’ll be able to start charging the press to attend.