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Why Are Organizations' Optics Suddenly So Awful?

Is it just me, or does it seem like prominent people in business and politics are failing to think things through all the way? From Mitt Romney's tax returns to Calvin Klein's Team USA outfits made in China to new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer saying she'll skip maternity leave, it seems like no one is getting the optics right lately. Let's put this problem underneath the lens, shall we?

As a latent-come-lately journalist, I'll say that poor optics are one of the things today's journalists live for, right up there with spell check, food stamps and Wikipedia. Watching someone in business or politics forget to consider how something looks to the great unwashed "out there" generates gazillions of copy inches and hours of cable news punditry each year, not to mention hundreds of sarcastic, anonymous comments posted to message boards.

One doesn't have to look very hard to find examples of foot-in-mouth disease of the PR kind these days. First, there's Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is the gift who keeps on giving when it comes to poor optics. From making flippant $10,000 bets to power boating in front of his expensive vacation homes to saying "Corporations are people, my friend!" in front of angry, booing crowds to not releasing his tax returns, Mr. Romney's PR people must be very busy. Busy trying to re-frame the lens and change the subject, that is. Will it work? Who knows. Mr. Romney is apparently moving up his announcement of VP to the coming weeks but the underlying questions could still linger: shouldn't he have known better than to have said/done these things in the first place? Can't he see how it all comes across? Doesn't he get it?

Or how about Calvin Klein, which has been tasked with the honor of making Team USA's outfits for the upcoming London Olympics? Everything was going great -- until we learned that the pricey outfits are being made in China. Team USA Fabrique in Chine? Gasp, how embarrassing. Now politicians, who haven't done very much to stem our national outsourcing epidemic, are outraged. Didn't anyone at Calvin Klein stop to think through the optics of outsourcing? I mean, these people work in fashion for gosh sakes, so I would assume they spend their days pondering image and presentation value. They're used to thinking in terms of how something looks to everyone else. But they failed to thread the needle by not thinking through the bigger picture -- e.g., how might the Made-In-China label look to Americans? Answer: it doesn't look very good, especially in this economy.

Then there's new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who was cheered the other day by women everywhere for being selected for a major CEO role at the relatively tender age of 37. Hooray! Then she tells us she's pregnant and will "work throughout" her very short maternity leave. Grrr! Message boards everywhere were suddenly lit up with perturbed parents. In one comment, Ms. Mayer managed to reignite the mommy wars and to potentially set back the hard-fought battles for maternity leave. Now working women might fear they could feel even more pressure to pop out a baby at 9 a.m. and be back in time for the afternoon meeting, because if first-time-mom-to-be-superwoman Ms. Mayer can do it, then why can't everyone else?

It would have been better if Ms. Mayer would have simply said she's thrilled at the opportunity to lead Yahoo! and how she's going to work hard to balance work and home as a new mom and a new CEO. That's all. She didn't have to say anything about not taking maternity leave. Most people would assume she would continue working in some capacity, anyway, given her leadership role. One wonders how the other female employees at Yahoo! -- particularly the ones who might be considering motherhood -- are viewing this today.

Optics. They're everywhere, in every job and in every station of life, and they're incredibly important. They speak to us, often without anyone having to say a word. We humans are very visual creatures, and our minds are always trying to connect the dots. We react either positively or negatively to how something seems, and how it looks. And often, how we perceive something to be is how we think about it forever from then on, and it can be very hard to change our opinions of reality once they're set.

They say no press is bad press, but bad optics are bad optics. Period. Good luck to their intrepid PR people. They will need it.


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