Even the innocent can be caught unawaresThere’s quite a hoohah afoot – pardoning the implicit biological condundrum – about the PM’s photographer. Various people – in The Guardian and The Observer, for example – are making remarks about the public purse paying for those who manage the personal image of public servants. The indignation is understandable, but I’m wondering if it’s actually the most relevant point. Like any significant leader (whether of a country, a major organisation or an enterprise), the PM will be aware of the importance of managing his public image. Most of us will rarely, if ever, experience his personal charisma and magic (making the assumption that these are amongst his possessions) first-hand, so our opinions, reactions and responses are to ‘the PM at one remove’ – his pubic image. Like anyone who has an image to maintain, he will be acutely aware of this. Hiring a personal photographer, whoever foots the bill, is not something that happens by accident, after all.

The harder question with many people who are carefully managing their image is the extent to which they are aware that we are also aware of the managing. Any audience – whether the general public, an electorate or a workforce – is increasingly media aware. I’m not sure how ironic it is that we have the media itself to largely thank for this, but a diet of programmes about make-overs and print and web reporting of spin doctors and their activities is only ever going to make the veil a little more transparent. We know a make-over when we see one, not least because a lot of us have ourselves been ‘done’. (How much you want to look up the variety of meanings of ‘done’ in a dictionary at this point might have some statistical correlation to the cost of the doing, but I’ll leave that one for a media-savvy research student somewhere.)

We may even see a make-over where none has been applied. Faced with a figure posing as credible, do we see their credibility – or their posing? Credibility – like authenticity – is in the eye of the beholder rather than the camera angle and lighting set-up of the subject and their faithful consultant. Faced with, to pick a random example, Richard Branson in a wedding dress, do you initially see a charismatic business maverick using his profile to launch a wedding business originally suggested by a flight attendant (the apparent inspiration for the venture), or do you see a publicity stunt? (This isn’t to say publicity stunts are a bad thing per sesomething we’ve explored before.) The conundrum of Anne Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing I will leave you to make your own minds up about: just don’t ask me to watch.

We do live in an age where ‘spin’ is an issue. At one level, we accept it as inevitable – even if life has characters whose approach seems to fit that tireless quote “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, few of us deliberately choose to show ourselves in a bad light. (But feel free to write in with examples.) Tacitly acknowledging how judgemental we are as a species, we accept that we will be judged and do our best to get a reasonable mark – and equally acknowledge others are doing the same. (The exceptions are those whose projected image is “I don’t care what other people think”: even here – other than true sociopaths (a clinical term not to be bandied about gaily) – most people in this category are choosing to project an image and a statement about the value they place on other people’s evaluations. It’s when spinning gets out of control that the trouble starts – and the objections start to arise.

The irony of contrasting Peter Mandelson’s reputation as the master of spin with his general public image as a man spinning furiously many years in advance of his grave is delicious, but it’s also a warning notice. We’ve struck a note of irony about this before in a business context, noting Peter York’s dismay at the heavily managed pile of CVs he received when he was recruiting in the 1990s:

… by the fifth interview I could see that they were all doing a branding job, building a character from ready-mades, the kind they gave them at Robot School. I started to tune into the vocabulary, and the body language […] and longed for a candidate to tell me they collected 17-century Iznik pottery, or better still, watched a lot of television.”

Of all the press commentary on the Cameron Cameragate storm in a teacup (does it sound more dramatic as a teeschalesturm? Decisions, decisions …), the most interesting came not from a political commentator, but from a press photographer – Roger Tooth, the Guardian’s head of photography. When the public know that an image is being carefully managed for their benefit, the management element inevitably starts to devalue the image content. As Tooth points out:

Obviously, it would be very bad news if this appointment led to the kind of access the Guardian’s Martin Argles had with Gordon Brown during the election being denied in future. It’s also a given that any photographs taken by Andrew Parsons could only be published by a serious news organisation with a pinch of salt and a health warning in the picture caption.”

Perhaps I’m not the only one thinking witty thoughts about the ability to fake sincerity. The famous quote has been variously attributed, but French writer Jean Giradoux has a reasonable claim. Obviously a sharp gent, our response to images of success might be better tempered by another of his aphorisms, albeit one that’s less well-known:

When you see a woman who can go nowhere without a staff of admirers, it is not so much because they think she is beautiful, it is because she has told them they are handsome.”

But while I agree with Roger Tooth’s surprise that the Coalition’s leaders – or anyone in a position of power, authority or status, for that matter – “feel the need for that much extra control”, to me there’s another surprise: that the sheer time, money and energy expended on maintaining half-believed images is considered worthwhile given what are surely more important priorities. (That anyone will think better of someone they don’t know for knowing which make of fridge they own or what type of orange juice squeezer they use is also something of a puzzle, albeit free publicity for the manufacturers.)

The ultimate surprise – and the word should be a more downbeat one, such as disappointment – is that all this behaviour so contradicts the calls for (and the on-going human search for) authenticity. We don’t buy fake Louis Vitton luggage in Turkish markets because we love fakes, but because we wish we could afford the real thing. Imitation might be flattery, but the real thing is still the ultimate goal. Another HR blogger, the HR Bartender, captured this well in a recent post, Finding Your Rocky Horror. For Sharlyn Lauby – and I confess to having danced more than the one Time Warp myself over the years, the Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t about songs, dances or fancy dress, it was a space in which to avoid the scenario she sums up in one sentence:

Business professionals are constantly being judged by what handbag or briefcase they carry, their job title and whether or not they attend certain conferences.

It was a phenomenon – as an audience participation piece – that wasn’t about trying desperately to be seen in the pre-conceived ‘right light’, that was about sidestepping dilemmas like “Does my iPad look big in this?”. Though she concludes with a song title from the show – Don’t Dream It: Be It – that neatly sums up the importance of finding and developing your own inner voice and personal style, we might need to rephrase it in modern circumstances as Don’t Pose For It, Get On With It. (Consider for a moment the tidal wave of images in corporate brochures and websites: how often do you think you can tell the real photo from the one chosen from a commercial image bank? Pretty often, I suspect. Most offices aren’t as well lit, or staffed with remorselessly attractive people who ironed moments ago and smile 24/7.)

The lingering images we leave behind are rarely those we choose: no matter how hard we may seek to manipulate what is projected, it’s how those looking on see us that stays with them. More energy on the relationship and the interaction and less on the make-up counter may not do so much lasting harm, not truly make a difference. Roger Tooth expresses doubts that No 10 would ever have sanctioned an image of Gordon Brown with his head in his hands ‘in a studio listening to his Gillian Duffy gaffe’: I’m sure he’s right. But I also wonder if the unsanctionable image might not have led more people to see the former PM in a more human light than a more managed and controlled press moment.

We respond to humanity, because – under our couture, our grooming and our careful body language – we can emphasise. There’s a classic bit of advice for dealing with a tyrannical boss or a stressful audience that says “imagine them in their underwear” – ie see them as flawed, imperfect and human, just as you know yourself to be. I’d say it works from the audience’s point of view: I don’t have costume details (she’s far too polite), but knowing the HR Bartender spent Halloween watching the “original” Rocky Horror Picture Show and enjoying Spooky Joes and Apple Martinis” doesn’t make me think less of her as a commentator on HR issues. I actually wind up seeing her as just as competent, but more of a human being. The kind of HR adviser I probably wouldn’t mind sharing an apple martini with one Halloween (excellent drink choice, btw), rather than one I’d avoid having lunch with at a conference.

And much as I hope the advice about underwear doesn’t get taken literally by the private photographers of the powerful and influential, there’s more than one metaphorical equivalent. One involves carefully managed images that will inevitably have a backdrop of wallpaper that will date more rapidly than the photo, or just generally smack of trying too hard. The other involves being sufficiently confident in oneself that the urge to micro-manage the moment has been largely avoided. So which do you think engages more?

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