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One Shot, and the Press Can Take You Down
By: Jeannine Wheeler
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The German prime minister sporting a Hitler-like ‘stache'. Just one in a long line of unbecoming press photographs that can influence public perceptions — one way or the other. The power of the pixel is alive and well. Compound that with the power of digital and social media, and what is a politician or celebrity to do but grin and bear it?

The latest unfortunate photograph is of Angela Merkel appearing to have a toothbrush moustache when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed his finger in front of her face at a press conference. The photo went round the world, casting Merkel — and the Germany of yore — in a very unflattering light.

Celebrities are fair game as well.

Witness Alec Baldwin, actor, talk show host, and sometimes gadfly, who purportedly hates the press for invading his privacy. There is no end to the number of unflattering photos being published of Baldwin, the latest showing the rather portly actor with a hot dog hanging out of the side of his mouth while filming a guest role for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (while ironically playing a newspaper publisher).

Some would argue that he’s brought this all on himself by endlessly courting publicity when it is to his advantage and then lashing out at the press when they don’t print what he wants. Nevertheless, it’s pretty hard to go up against the media behemoth once they’ve taken a disliking to you. We can expect many more like it.

Other recent examples include French President Francoise Holland looking like a gormless cartoon character in front of a blackboard in northern France with the words written “Today, it’s back to school.” Agence France-Press made the photograph available to media outlets, but later made a highly criticized editorial decision to withdraw it. But not before the world was to enjoy what was termed a "clownish” photo that made the politician look “simple-minded.” Holland later stated: “I didn’t realize being America’s new best friend meant I’d have to look like Mickey Mouse.”

Speaking of politicians, there are far too many of former US President George Bush to mention, but a 2001 Thanksgiving Day turkey "shoot" really stands out. With the big bird appearing to peck away at Bush’s genital area and him looking rather chagrined, no further proof is needed that the pictorial power of the press can wield its mighty axe in your direction if they so choose.

Of course, observers of the 1988 presidential campaign will remember Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ "helmet in a tank" pictures. In this case, the campaign actually released the photo-op to the media, erroneously believing it would make the former Massachusetts governor look martial and presidential. They probably got this idea from former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been photographed in a similar situation in 1986 riding in a Challenger tank while wearing a scarf. Her photo ploy was deemed successful. Dukakis’, however, remains shorthand today for “PR back-fire media fail.”

So whether you are releasing the photos or reacting to them, there is no doubt that the power of the picture is often the perception. Fight it, overcome it with new ones of your own, or just join in the fun, but as a PR professional, never underestimate it.

More stuffing anyone?


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About the Author
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.
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