For decades, PR has been a profession for wordsmiths, and the tools of the trade have been press releases and soundbites. But, amid all the changes this industry has seen, it’s the shift to visual communication that is the most profound.
The fact is, communication has become a visual art. Global audiences relate more easily to pictures than words. Mobile audiences demand the immediacy of an image, rather than the complexity of text. And social media has placed the need for authenticity front and center, with visual proof becoming an essential ingredient of any social campaign.
Major players are racing to sate our appetites for the visual. This week’s news that Facebook will buy Instagram for $1billion is proof of the power of the image. As Om Malik argues, photos are an absolutely essential part of Facebook’s future – and worth billions in valuation terms. Instead of entering its IPO with a less than stellar offering for photos, Facebook paid a shockingly high price for a company that has captured its consumers’ imaginations with an easy way to beautify and upload photos.
This also helps explain the incredible growth of Pinterest. There are hundreds of sites that allow you to bookmark, organize and share tidbits from all over the web. But Pinterest made that process visually engaging. It made it beautiful. And consumers voted with their pins.
There are countless other examples. Google’s personalized search makes an overt connection between photos and trust (you’re more likely to click on a result that has a photo of someone you recognize next to it). And there’s a reason why data visualization has become the hottest thing in business intelligence. For more examples of how visuals are becoming central to product innovation, check out Rocky Agrawal’s post on Venturebeat.
Daniel Pink puts this trend into broader context in his book, ‘A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World’. He argues that we’re moving into a new era, the Conceptual Age. “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.”
So, what does all this mean for the PR profession? It means we need to embrace a much more rounded skillset, which encompasses the art of visual story-telling. We need to meet the demand for information in a visual format and we need to think visually when devising communications strategies for our clients.
For example, I’d argue that PR needs to be part of the brand identity discussion. Too often, this work is divided into two parts: the messaging, which PR participates in, and the visual identity, which it does not. That’s fine if you have text-only channels of communication, but in a world where every channel is highly visual, the two need to be considered hand-in-hand. PRs need to become fluent in the language of visual brand development if they want to contribute to that conversation.
If you’ve ever sat in a brainstorm with a graphic designer and a PR person, you’ll know they come at problems from a completely different perspective. PR people think in headlines, while designers think in visual storyboards. Swapping between the two can be a useful exercise when developing truly robust campaign concepts.
Secondly, there’s the growing importance of a brand’s owned channels. To echo the argument made by reporter and blogger, Tom Foremski, ‘every company is a media company’. We’ve been talking about brands becoming publishers in their own right for some time – and we believe PR professionals concerned about building trust and recognition for their brands should consider the role of brand journalism in their company. But these efforts can’t be successful without a visual component. These corporate publications have to have a strong visual identity and multimedia content that engages readers and inspires trust, without being heavily branded.
When it comes to tactical implementation, no PR campaign should be attempted without a visual component. Whether it’s a graphic to explain some data, a video of a spokesperson in response to a crisis, or a photo to illustrate a new product in action, these assets are not just pretty extras. They can provide vital context.
In a way, PR pros need to be graphic designers, photographers, data visualizers and art directors. They need to understand how visual elements can impact a brand image (in the widest sense of the word) and choose the right medium to communicate effectively and efficiently. So, brush up on your Photoshop, get out your camera and start looking at the Big Picture. You may be surprised by the results.