Visual PR is not a trend you can afford to ignore, says MSL India’s Jaideep Shergill

Take a moment, think of the last few purchases you made. Chances are – whether it’s a shirt, a mobile app or that muffin you really shouldn’t be having – how good it looked affected your decision to reach for your wallet.

Today, design is not just vital for products; even services work hard on the aesthetics of their customer interfaces – apps, websites and offices.

The same principle can be applied to public relations.

Most communicators realise that ours is a visual world. Take the case of newspapers – stories are getting smaller and more space is being devoted to photographs and infographics. Online, users are increasingly consuming information through videos and interactive images. On social networks, it’s the posts with great visuals that attract the most engagement.

Visual thinking can help the PR practitioner to engage audiences better, to evolve communications strategies that are better focused on business objectives, and in storytelling. The last, I believe, is set to transform PR, but that’s a discussion for another column.

Of the myriad challenges that PR firms face, the most daunting is the battle to gain and retain stakeholders’ attention. A visual approach can help you:

1. Detail a product or service’s benefits.

2. Explain the business’ DNA and its vision.

3. Achieve a thought leadership position.

4. Simplify complex messages.

In MSLGROUP India’s experience, e-mailed press releases that include visual/multimedia elements generate greater media interest. We also find that visual content is more broadly distributed – on social networks and through search engines. This is not true of text-only press releases that tend to be used, but rarely shared.

Visual content also has a longer-lasting impact, popping up on Twitter and Facebook for several days after it’s been released. It tends to have higher recall and is downloaded more often than text. Stakeholders too are demanding that PR firms ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.

Going forward, I believe that images, multimedia and infographics will be the primary tools that brands use to tell their stories.

This is simply because most people comprehend visuals better. They form associations and thoughts, derive meanings and comprehend situations based on what they see. Visuals make for powerful stimuli; that’s why Twitpic, Pinterest and Instagram are so popular.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A text-only approach in a visual world won’t work. The two approaches must complement each other. A truly great communications campaign will incorporate great text with visual storyboarding.

Even tactically, PR campaigns will not be executed without visual elements – from great pictures to infographics and videos.

  • Many businesses are becoming publishers. Look at Coca-Cola. Its’ traditional approach to marketing communications has been discarded in favour of a strong content- and storytelling-based strategy. Its regularly-updated website is now dedicated to telling the Coke story, its vision and what the brand stands for. It won’t be long before every business will need to be a media company in part. The PR practitioner, whose job it is to create trust around a brand, will need to become a brand journalist.

None of this is possible without great visuals. Strong visual identities and multimedia content are what will provide engagement and trust.

Here are the benefits of a few visual tools:

  • Infographics: If done right, they can be very viral on social media and help amplify your vision and values.
  • Videos: They’re cheaper to create nowadays and are normally hosted for free on channels such as YouTube. They are highly engaging and are often shared.
  • Photos: Cameras are getting cheaper and so is editing software. You can use them on a variety of channels – from print to web.

We are evolving as a society, from agrarian/assembly-line to one based on knowledge. Our quest now is not just to create and maintain, but to understand and find meaning. For the PR practitioner, this means the acquisition of skills that are wider than what we have now. Apart from looking at integrating different communications disciplines – design and content, to name just two – we will also need to understand the art of storytelling and communicating through visuals. Our approach will need to be more visual while formulating communication plans.

Visual PR is not a trend you can afford to ignore; it’s here to stay.

Jaideep Shergill is CEO of MSL India