No Strings Attached

Despite finishing second in the annual Sydney to Hobart blue-water racing classic, the yacht named after communications giant AAPT outperformed most of its rivals in the PR stakes.

While big racing boats such as AAPT fly with the wind they also burn bucketloads of cash. Which is why the big boats need big sponsors. Corporate sponsors look to the bottom line and expect a return on investment that is primarily measured on the amount of media coverage they garner.

But gaining media coverage during the race is at best uncertain or contingent on being the first across the finish line.

However, AAPT had a trick up their sleeve. On December 4, well over two weeks before the race started, AAPT skipper Sean Langman took his boat for a trial run off the Sydney coast and hoisted a huge kite sail aloft. The aqua blue sail, costing approximately $A25,000 and sporting the AAPT name and trailing its silvery retaining ropes, filled way above the yacht's deck.

Up higher still in a helicopter, a video crew filmed the spectacle for AAPT. Two days later the video was provided to media outlets at a AAPT PR launch of the yacht and its kite.

The following morning Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) readers saw the results of AAPT's PR coup. "How to win the Sydney-Hobart strings attached", read the headline in a 19 by 22 centimetre front-page above-the-fold picture story. (For the non-metricised the picture was approximately 7.5 by 8.5 inches). The photo caption credited the image to AAPT, whose logo on both the sail and the yachts deck was discernible but appropriately subtle for a PR giveaway.

The PR folks down at AAPT must have been delighted with the front-page splash. (They didn't return a call on their PR coup). No amount of money could buy a front-page ad on the SMH above the fold or of that size. (Nor was it the only photo available to the SMH as another story covering competitors reaction to the kite sail carried a photo credited to AP.

While AAPT did well in scoring a PR photo on the front page, their success reveals a loophole in the otherwise commendable code of ethics adopted by Fairfax, the publisher of the SMH.

While the code states that "advertising copy which could be confused for editorial should be marked 'special promotion'", it remains silent on the reproduction of PR photos in the news pages.

In its section governing images the code states "Staff will present pictures and sound that are true and accurate. They will disclose manipulation that could mislead". As there is no doubt that the AAPT image is accurate, it passes the Fairfax test. At least they acknowledged the source of the photo. (Though in the SMH's photo gallery on the kite sail AAPT's photo is included but the origin is rather cryptically hinted at with the tag "photos supplied").

But don't readers deserve better than having PR pics promoting corporate sponsorships served up in the news pages?

Come race time, with the forecast predicting heavy weather crossing Bass Strait, AAPT didn't even take the kite sail with them. "We will go with what we know works and that is no kite sail," Langman told Fox Sports news two days before the race.

"Given the forecast I think my wife is at home rigging it up as canopy for lunch tomorrow (Christmas Day," Langman said.

AAPT's success placing a PR photo is an example of a trend some in the PR industry are keen to encourage.

"Competition to get a PR photograph covered is tough," Jim Sulley, the Director of Photography at the New York office of the Newscast photo agency recently told the U.S. PR trade publication, O'Dwyers PR Services Report.

In a "10 tips for powerful photos" list, published in the November 2004 edition of the O'Dwyers publication, Sully recommended "Don't overbrand photos; the caption can convey branding. Advertising photos belong in ads".

"It is also vital to avoid falling into the trap of trying to advertise or market businesses, products and services in a way that turns picture editors off," he cautioned.

"Ultimately the picture editor is a gatekeeper who looks out for great reportage; an image that tells a story in an instant. That's what PR people should be aiming to achieve," Sulley told O'Dwyer's.

The unstated assumption of those in the PR industry hustling pics is that they hope they can outsource the costs of gathering news photos to those with financial ability to hire their own photographers. Of course, those with the greatest ability will be those selling commercial products and looking to recoup their outlays.

Of course the risk is that cash-strapped media will lap the free pictures up in much the same way the video news releases produced by corporations and governments have insinuated their way into news broadcasts.