Optics: How an event or action is perceived. For business, optics refers to actions, policies and decisions that shape attitudes toward the company.
We’ve learned of CEO bonuses, yacht acquisitions or other big-ticket perks ill-timed to meager quarterly earnings or employee layoffs. We’ve heard about product malfunctions or management promotions alongside news of leadership failures or personal scandals. Poor optics!
Sometimes it’s judgment. Sometimes it’s timing. Sometimes it’s poor communication.
Thanks to social media and real-time news, brands may pay a price when their actions or statements are out of sync with expectations. No matter the scenario, consider optics vis-a-vis your brand and company values.
Optics Affects Brands
Will bold action and announcements establish market leadership? That depends. If your news moves the company forward and benefits stakeholders or the public, you might garner rewards. However, if it runs counter to your brand, the public will catch the hypocrisy.
Every year Shell Oil creates 1%-2% of global CO2 emissions as it invests billions in oil and gas. Its Twitter poll, which asked people what they were “willing to change to help reduce emissions, was criticized for “greenwashing” or “gaslighting” the critical cause of climate change by not taking accountability for its own role in the crisis.
Dove U.K. once announced limited-edition body washes shaped like women’s body types to commemorate how beauty can take many forms. The campaign was panned for placing too much emphasis on body shape and potentially triggering insecurity.
Lack of authenticity is bad optics. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, companies pledged to fight racism and break down barriers to opportunity. However, several were called out for their failure to hire, promote or fairly pay Black people and other underrepresented groups.
Optics Affects Leaders
If a member of, or aspirer to, the C-Suite behaves contrary to company culture or values, it can kill their career.
On the other hand, bold moves that are genuine demonstrate confidence and have positive outcomes. Sometimes it’s the optics of a single big announcement; other times, it’s the cumulative reputation across one’s career.
When Amazon’s founder Jeff Beozos returned from his Blue Origin spaceflight, he thanked Amazon workers and customers who “paid for all of this,” referring to the billions in company stock he sold to fund this project. Spending money like this while the country still suffered the financial impact of COVID was tone-deaf at best, causing some to call for boycotting Amazon.
CEOs are often disconnected from how employees and the public perceive their riches. The Center for Public Integrity reported that, while 41 million people lost their jobs in 2020, CEOs at the largest publicly traded companies received pay raises of 18.9%, on average, while typical workers’ wages increased 3.9%.
How to Anticipate Optics?
If you ask yourself or your communications team these questions and are uncomfortable or uncertain about the answer, you may have an optics issue.
Will the public or key stakeholders be surprised by the action?
Is it possible the announcement will create ill will?
Does the action coincide/conflict with financial, product or other company developments?
Is there a better time to take this action or share information?
If you don’t release the information now, will there be a price to pay later?
Giving It Your Best Shot
You can overthink optics, but don’t ignore them. If something doesn’t pass the smell test, it likely will reek to your audience. But if you’re operating with your best judgment, even though the optics may be imperfect, it may be worth going ahead.
Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through thought leadership, public education, issues management, content strategy, and strategic communications.
To find out how ICCC can help you and your company build your reputation contact