On the Selfie’s Emerging Role in PR (Just Ask Obama)


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Pope Francis poses for a selfie with Italian teenagers in St. Peter's Basilica (via @FabioMRagona)

On Tuesday, Barack Obama took part in an impromptu smartphone self-portrait with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. It’s been producing plenty of headlines, as people debate whether or not it was appropriate.

The Obama/Thorning-Schmidt/Cameron selfie is not really all that surprising. The form is proliferating because cellphone cameras make fun, extempore photos super easy. And selfies have been taking on commercial overtones too.

For celebrities and other public figures, selfies are an effective form of communicating. Posting photos of themselves (taken by themselves) doing regular things like showing off a new haircut or going to see the Mona Lisa is a way for celebrities to tell fans what they’re up to without the third-party filter of the traditional media. And it’s totally humanizing.

Selfies have become so popular that Oxford University Press pronounced “selfie” its word of the year for 2013.

But selfies aren’t just for people like Kim Kardashian. World leaders and other public figures have made good use of them, too. Some discretion is required, though. Ask Anthony Weiner. Here are some tips for how (and when) to take a legitimate selfie:

  • Have a message or purpose. Selfies often appear frivolous, lacking a serious purpose. But, they can easily be used an engagement tool to support a cause. Take this adorable selfie Michelle Obama took with First Dog Bo in August on the White House lawn. Michelle and Bo were taking part in National Geographic’s “Great Nature Project,” which encourages biodiversity education and awareness.
  • Connect with your audience. Don’t just take a selfie for the sake of taking it. Use them to relate to the people who are interested in you. PR natural Pope Francis took what many believe to be the first papal selfie in August with some Italian teenagers in St. Peter’s Basilica. The picture blew up on social media, connecting the pontiff directly to the young audience he has been vocal about relating to.
  • Make it a human moment. By its nature, the selfie toes the line of narcissism. Instead of using it to show off, use it to show that you’re just like everyone else. For example, Chelsea Clinton shared this humanizing moment with her mom, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Twitter in June. For a mother-daughter pair that has a significant global impact, they look pretty normal (and happy).

Follow Brian Greene: @bwilliamgreene


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