In the tech world, one of the iconic moments of the 1990s was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He went to Macworld and gave one of his best speeches, during which he announced a partnership with Microsoft. Bill Gates made an appearance during that speech, projected on a giant screen behind Jobs.
Jobs was said to have always been uncomfortable with the visuals of that moment, where Gates was the giant presence, overwhelming the tiny Jobs, and symbolically, Apple itself.
Never mind that that actually was true in 1997. It got me thinking about how important the visuals are in public relations and overall communications, planned or spontaneous. It applies in every human endeavor, not just tech and not just business. Think politics. Michael Dukakis’ campaign was derailed in 1988 by that photo of him in a tank. He didn’t look presidential, to put it mildly. Or think about an iconic sports image, the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony where two American track athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists in the black power salute. The third medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, appeared to be ignoring the other two, but he was involved and supportive in advance and actually wore a badge to show solidarity.
Great imagery that underscores a message—whether for a brand or politician or athlete—doesn’t just happen. It requires thinking and planning and in the case of public relations, collaboration. Back in the 1980s, Michael Deaver was a master image creator for Ronald Reagan, notably, with his speech at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.
More recently, the MTV Video Music Awards created a stir that continues even now, as the one-time tween star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” performed a song at the event that made the term “twerking” a household word and left a big slice of the country revolted. But I suspect that somewhere, some publicity team is saying, “mission accomplished.” In that case, I suspect, the image (an adult, racy Cyrus—not Hannah Montana) is exactly what Cyrus wanted.
So it was dissonant last week when Vogue Magazine published a rare in-depth article on Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO opened up for really the first time in her headline-generating 13-month tenure in a long and essentially positive article. But accompanying the article was a weird photo of Mayer lying on a couch/lounge type of furniture, upside down, in a blue dress.
And what struck me most was why a Stanford-educated technology-company CEO would allow her image to be undermined in a way that no male CEO would ever do and frankly, in a way that no male CEO would ever be asked to do. Would Tim Cook be asked to pose in that manner? Would he do it? How about Warren Buffett?
So in the end, an epic fail for Mayer, and in a way, worse for her personal brand than spending $30 million on some teenager’s app.