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.
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.