Taking A Brand New Look at Visual Storytelling

Chuck Tanowitz
Chuck Tanowitz

In the PR world we have a difficult relationship with using graphics as media-relations tools. Usually when the subject of images or graphics comes up with clients, it’s around big, billable projects like infographics or as support for major initiatives. But as an industry we must think about graphics as an integral part of the entire communications infrastructure.

This is no easy task for a group of people that prides itself on its words. Graphics, we often say, are the domain of the advertising folks. They’re for someone else, not for us. I’m guilty of this too; I’m a reporter by training, a PR person by career and a writer by necessity. Graphics? Not really my strength.

These days, however, everything needs graphics. Reporters regularly tell my team that they need something visual even just to submit a piece of content to the CMS. It can be as simple as a logo, a headshot or a photo found on Flickr.

For PR people this represents a major opportunity. All that blank real estate must be filled by something; as long as it helps tell the story it provides additional opportunities for messaging.

Also, providing the right graphics could mean the difference between a story buried low on a list of links and one that rises to the top of the page.

So, what should we do to ensure that our clients have what we need?

Assess the assets.

It’s amazing how much visual material has already been amassed on the client side. Everything from logos to headshots to office photos can play a role in the overall PR effort. What is more, the client may have a graphics person on staff or elsewhere in their vendor ecosystem. All this material can help in your storytelling.

Get a good headshot.

It amazes me how few companies fail to go through with this simple but easy-to-accomplish task. A good headshot not only helps with article placement, but can be a key part of your social strategy, tying together your presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and any other service you can think of.

Not all headshots need to be the standard “stand and smile” variety, though those tend to work just fine. Yes, you can take one yourself with a mobile phone, but even better would be to hire a photographer to take photos of the entire management team. Then you have consistency.

Hang a logo.

Shooting a quick video to accompany a press release or news story is a great way to add a little extra graphic content to your outreach, but just another talking head isn’t overly compelling. A simple solution is to make a large logo and hang it on the wall, then shoot the videos with the logo in the background. It gives you a simple branding mechanism and makes the shot slightly unique.

Use free infographic tools.

A good infographic is a storytelling device that uses design as a way to easily convey otherwise dry, numerical information. It should be crisp, clean and easy to understand.

Unfortunately, most infographics are cluttered, long, confusing and boring. Still, editors love them, almost as much as they love slide shows, and people continue to click on them. So despite some of the backlash they’ve received, infographics aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But creating one doesn’t have to mean a big, expensive project; you could use a tool like Infogr.am, Piktochart or Visual.ly to create your own.

Hire a creative director.

As word-based PR people, we can only do so much. Your PR team must have someone on staff who can think visually, speak the visual language and offer the right insights to the clients. For a long time we’ve thought of creative directors in the context of advertising, but, as marketing continues to evolve and our roles continue to change, we must look to becoming a more full-service model.

This doesn’t mean changing entirely over to advertising and releasing our inner “Don Draper,” but it does mean telling stories in a visually compelling way so we can help journalists fill the void left by diminishing staffs, even as we help our clients gain additional coverage.

There’s a balance here. Editors aren’t going to run just anything, whatever images the PR team supplies needs to tell the right story. Luckily, that’s what good PR people do. We take our client’s messages and turn them into stories that people, including journalists, want to share.

It shouldn’t matter if we do that with words or pictures.


Chuck Tanowitz is a principal and co-founder of Fresh Ground Inc. He is also a published photographer. He can be reached at ctanowitz@itsfreshground.com.

This article appeared in the August 12 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.