Don’t Let Amateur Photography Tell Your Brand’s Story

When Captain Sully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, his photo wasn’t the face of the brand that everyone saw. No, what they saw first was that now-famous cell phone picture taken by a commuter. He was on a ferry that responded to the scene. Out came the camera, followed by a quick upload to the Web.

The rest, as they say, is Internet history.

Welcome to citizen journalism in the digital age. Where quality doesn’t matter — getting the picture online first does.

Now I’m sure the amateur photographer wasn’t out for glory; he just wanted people to see what he was seeing at the moment he was seeing it. Within an hour, though, that picture was around the world on most major news outlets.

While US Airways was still trying to put the pieces together surrounding the landing, the story was being written by that lone image.

Speed Over Quality

That 640 x 480 snapshot managed to make a dent in the public perception of US Airways, having more impact than all of the wonderful visuals in the brand’s print ads combined. For the US Airways brand, it’s not unlike how a 30-second YouTube video on bad service at the ticket counter can undo all the upbeat imagery in one of the airline’s big-budget TV commercials.

It’s not just US Airways, either.

Virtually all brands are now at the mercy of anyone with a cell phone, Coolpix or other portable recording device. Brands no longer drive the agenda; consumers do. They even control the news cycle, because social networks allow people to disseminate images within minutes.

There’s been a steady decline in the quality of editorial shots in recent years. The bar has been lowered, and people have become used to that. Grainy shot with a zoom from 200 yards? No problem — it’s Jennifer Aniston getting her nails done, and we got the shot!

Just as Paris runway fashion trends eventually find their way to Target and Wal-Mart, this tabloid photography has influenced the mainstream media and undermined the quality of what people see — and what they’ve accepted as “good.” Thanks to advances in digital printing and production techniques, magazines that used to take the time to carefully craft each issue now do so in days and wait to the last second to add breaking-news images.

From editors to consumers, everyone wants their images faster and cheaper. Quality photography? That’s for coffee table books.

Responding Visually

When it comes to corporate brands, ad agencies, public relations firms and design studios have traditionally had the power to disseminate the dominant images that control perceptions. In the age of social media, however, this has changed. Brands are now having a hard time keeping up with a news cycle that has bloggers posting things about their brands literally minutes after it happens.

What can companies do to make sure their side of the story is heard? The aftermath of US Airways Flight 1549 shows that brands still have an opportunity to impact public perceptions — and specifically, the visual images that remain in the public consciousness.

Stephen Mallon, a New York City photographer, was hired by Weeks Marine, a maritime crane company that helped in the recovery of Flight 1549 from the Hudson River, to document the salvage process, with the consent of US Airways.

Mallon’s series of compelling images put a human face on the event, and go a long way to offset the sensational aspects of seeing 40+ grainy people standing in freezing water on an airplane wing — or the countless shots by other people driving on the highway who chased the plane as it floated down the river, like the paparazzi hounding Britney.

Unfortunately, Mallon’s images have been the subject of legal wrangling. But the lesson that US Airways and other brands should take from Mallon’s work is that it’s more important than ever for companies to hire professionals to document their story. Never let the dominant images of your brand be what someone threw up on Flickr or YouTube.

In an age when every commuter has a cell-phone camera, some argue that the days of professional photographers are numbered. I would argue that, on the contrary, it’s even more important for brands to have a pro on hand to create the kind of images they want their customers to remember.

12 Responses to “Don’t Let Amateur Photography Tell Your Brand’s Story”

  1. While I believe professionals are very much needed to help craft the branding, in the case you sited where is the professional images. His are only for the insurance company it appears, so all that is left is the citizen journalist. Where was the professional images helping tell the story?

    Seems like from the scenario of Scully, we cannot control our branding, but the public does seems to be the bottom-line.

    How does the corporation get their professionally crafted images out in a situation like this?

  2. Excellent article Bill! Thanks a lot for writing this and sharing it on Twitter. I will pass it along.

  3. Bill,

    Right on! Think the concept of follow-up management/documenting happenings is an extremely relevant pitch. Thank you.


  4. Hmmm...this is not a new trend. Images captured by amateurs have long been used to tell and illustrate stories (in my childhood for example, the famed Zapruder footage of President Kennedy's last moments on this earth) because it's all there was, or they were there with a camera, or whatever the reason. Cell phones with cameras told us the real story behind the lines in Iraq, captured 9/11 with haunting inside imagery. there are more opportunities now than ever before to share images, and in my opinion, amateurs with pocket cameras in no way impact the role of the professional photographer but enlarge our understanding of events as a culture. F8 and be there, right? I disagree with you thesis re: branding based on such imagery as indicated in the examples in your article. I agree with Mr. Leary, in that the public is the bottom line.

  5. Dave, I agree that it's not a new phenomenon; what's new is the relative volume of imagery the public sees. In the case of Kennedy, think of how much imagery we have of Camelot from Life Magazine and other professional sources, compared to the small number of consumer-generated images that reached the public consciousness. Today, if brands aren't careful and responsive, they can get buried by a flood of consumer-generated images that don't necessarily portray the brand the way they would like it to be portrayed.

    Brands have to participate, with visuals as well as words, rather than hide behind their pat advertising imagery. It's similar to how a corporate PR department is better off engaging bloggers and the public in a two-way dialogue rather than simply issuing press releases, one-way communications that are often oblivious to what the audience actually wants to know.

  6. Scott summed up some things, but I wanted to chime in collectively to all.

    @Stanley - Good points. I’m referring to the quality of the images we’ve become used to. Whether for insurance or whatever use, his are definitely professional images. (I’m assuming you had a chance to see them.) Regardless of how they ended up now in legal limbo, at the time, those images were as available online in the days that followed as that first cell phone image was.

    I agree the public is the bottom line, but they also gravitate to what’s out there. If all they have is crappy cell images to pass around, well, they’ll do it.

    “How does the corporation get their professionally crafted images out in a situation like this?”

    Agreeing with Jason’s point here: I see it as filling the void before “citizen journalists” do. Go out and work with their own people to create those moments and shoot their side/tape interviews, etc. Does this fall into PR territory? Sure, I think it does as Scott points out.

    But that’s not a bad thing. Doesn’t mean you have to mislead people? No. Just give them more options to think about, more sides to the story as it were.

    @SM - Thanks.

    @Dave - I hear you. “....this is not a new trend ... there are more opportunities now than ever before to share images.”

    I agree that it’s not new. Zapruder notwithstanding, what is new is the unprecedented rate at which sharing of images takes place now. (I grew up watching rocket launches on a B&W TV. What we knew was what the TV told us. Maybe the paper the next day if we were lucky.)

    To be clear: As a designer and amateur shooter myself, cell phone journalism will NEVER compete with pro shooters. I hate that the quality of what people accept now is at times no better than grainy National Enquirer shots. As my writer friend put it fairly succinctly: People don’t want quality—they just want it now.

    As for the other stuff, I think embedded media sanctioned by the government trying to control a message gave us a glimpse of Iraq before cell phones ever did, much like a trapped CNN crew during Gulf War I. Soldiers with handicams gave us yet another side.

    Re: 9/11, I recall more video camera footage than cell phone images being replayed over and over, but I get your point. Not sure cells had quite the image-taking capabilities they do now.

    As for branding, it’s never just a logo or slick image or PR release. It’s as much your perception of the product or brand based on your experience with it. One image or accident won’t kill you if you’ve had good experiences to that point with it. But a brand’s history of lousy customer service and/or cheap products won’t be overcome by gorgeous catalogs and print ads.

    Again, we’re at a point now when you never had this “countering of the message” by citizen/customer. If they hated something, all they could was call a toll-free number on the back of a box. Now? Blog it and draw the ire of the public.

    I’m not saying that if a brand ignores that that the face of the brand will be just whatever happens to make it to YouTube that night, but as people do their own stuff more and more, there will be a big disconnect between what’s really being said about a brand and what the brand is putting out, unless they do something about it.

  7. (I hit submit too fast. ;-p )

    When I mean fill the void, I mean in the subsequent days and weeks that follow the initial incident/story. And that story can and often does take new turns as things progress. It’s that thing that the evening news leads with, right? “New details are beginning to emerge...”

    Brands can be part of that. Many brands are now taking a SWAT team approach to social media. If not getting out in front of it, at least trying to run parallel to the news cycle.

    (I bet if someone had video a week later from within the plane as it landed while they made it to the exits, it would have eclipsed that wing shot onthe blogs. And as such, you started to see clips of multiple security camera views of the plane landing.

  8. Well said.

    Apart from technical skill and an understanding of what makes a good image, what can differentiate a pro from a cell phone observer is to always be alive to that great shot around you.

  9. If a professional had been first on the scene when Sully landed in the Hudson and the only camera he had to hand was in his cell phone, would that be OK or not?

    I think your argument is fundamentally flawed. It's a news story and being first on the scene it what it's about. Getting the picture first always matters, always has and always will. And now it's online! So what?

    If pros don't want to compete against ordinary people with cell phones they can always give it up and go and stack shelves in Walmart (or Tesco this side of the Atlantic).

    Anyone trying to make a living out of photography must, as I do, feel for the problems encountered by Stephen Mallon, but I think to try and link this and the Sully cell phone pic together in this way is just plain daft.

  10. Thanks for an insightful piece! I think I understand what you're saying.

    From my point of view, the consequences of an airplane crash are almost never good. The picture you point to paints a wonderful and lovely portrait of the humans spirit, heroism and can do-ness (sp?).

    Plus it's a pretty darned compelling photograph.

  11. @Mark - If I had a middle name, it would be daft. “If a professional had been first on the scene when Sully landed in the Hudson and the only camera he had to hand was in his cell phone, would that be OK or not?”

    Interesting point, maybe, if I agreed, but it’s theoretical. Of course it’s a stretch to connect insurance pics after the fact with the initial landing pics, but that’s all I have to go by because, well, that’s all there was.

    Forgetting that, if it was someone famous the whole scenario changes because you KNOW the hype that would follow: “See Shaq’s amazing pictures from inside the plane!” Celebrity thing takes over and nobody ends up caring how well something was shot, least of all me.

    It’s an accident site and as such, I’m realistic enough to not expect Capt Sully standing there and posing for 8x10s on the wing. Obviously that's the nature of news events because who can predict when and where.

    “It's a news story and being first on the scene it what it's about.”

    You’re missing the overall point: People with cell phones/vid cameras/blogs/twitter accounts are everywhere now, not just at crash sites, and they’re making their presence known by the images and stories THEY put out there of various brands. Do companies ignore that fact or work with it in some way? If they don’t, the story’s going to be told without them.

  12. Need to clarify something that goes to the heart of things here:

    “It's a news story and being first on the scene it what it's about.”

    Yes, in an editorial context, I agree. But we're talking bigger picture where people are taking of control of brands not when there’s an accident, (like a crash), but when they have a bad customer experience.

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