Your Image as a Performance Tool

Prague Leaders Magazine, November 2010

I must be getting old.

Twenty five years ago, Descamps, the renowned French luxury linen brand I was working for, asked me to hire a public relations agency to promote their 150-year-old brand in the United States. They told me to look for a PR firm that would be able to present the company in the best light; and to make sure that the account manager who would handle our company was someone who could easily be associated with the elegant and fashionable linen brand.

The firm we hired was an excellent fit, and our account manager was confident in her ability to promote the brand. She had a lovely, cultivated demeanor, groomed impeccably, and had outstanding written and interpersonal skills.

Though the world of marketing and PR has evolved quite a bit in the past 25 years, I thought that some principles had remained the same: a successful PR person is a walking advertisement for the brand he/she represents, whose behavior and attitude project credibility and professionalism.

So I was bewildered a few weeks ago when I attended a presentation on how to deal with the media, at which half of the audience presented themselves as PR consultants. Somewhere along the way, these PR consultants forgot that the way they dress, the way they speak and the way they behave in business situations says more about their competence and performance than they can imagine.

One of them was dressed more like a perennial student than someone dealing with business. Another sat slumped in his chair during the whole presentation. A third managed only to sound ill informed and arrogant when trying to contribute to the discussion. These PR people clearly needed some good PR coaching!

Like it or not, we are responsible for the way people perceive us. While judging a book by its cover can lead to some critical misunderstanding, ignoring the power and impact of how people perceive us can also be detrimental to our reputation. And refusing by choice or by ignorance to understand the interaction between our image and our overall performance is a serious mistake.

The Way We Look

The way we dress says a lot about who we are. Studies have shown that there is a clear link between our physical appearances – clothes, hairstyle, grooming – and our career advancement. And an airhead or grunge look can only get you so far before it becomes a detriment. Regardless of gender and personal preferences, anyone on a path to power needs to adopt a style that is office appropriate.

The idea is to avoid undermining one’s credibility. And you see famous people undermined in the mass media all the time. Sarah Palin (former candidate for U.S. vice president) gets a $150 000 makeover, (former U.S. presidential candidate) John Edwards gets a $400 haircut, (pop star) Britney Spears shaves her head, and all are pilloried by the media. And then there’s the American entrepreneur Donald Trump’s hair…

You may not, yet, be in the same league, but people make judgments about the way you look, and position you in their minds accordingly. From personal experience, I have learned that people who pay attention to the way they look have managed to open more doors and are taken more seriously than those who neglect their appearance or present themselves carelessly.

The Way We Act

While our personal appearance has a tremendous impact on the image we project, how we behave carries more weight than our wardrobe. Our bodies are our most important communication tool. We are constantly sending unconscious signals to the outside world by the way we stand, the way we move and the way we behave. And our posture automatically gives people an impression of our competence and credibility or the opposite.

“As a leader, one seeks prominence, as an outlaw the opposite is true. When underground, I did not walk as tall or stand as straight. I spoke more softly, with less clarity and distinction. I was more passive, more unobtrusive” wrote Nelson Mandela in his memoir Long Walk To Freedom.

Mandela understood the benefits of wearing a fitted suit while he worked as a lawyer. But he was even more aware of the importance of his posture when he went underground during his time of struggle against apartheid. “The key to be underground is to be invisible,” Mandela has said. “Just as there is way to walk into a room in order to make you stand out, there is a way of walking and behaving that makes you inconspicuous.”

The young aspiring PR consultants I met seem to be oblivious to the fact that their slouching and flimsy postures project a very negative impression and discredit them. And as crucial as our posture is to project credibility, our actions speak even louder.

At the eve of the American midterm’s elections, I was surprised to read how Barack Obama’s early supporters appear to have lost faith in him. It seems that after having built his image with great intelligence, the American President disregarded the voters’ needs for their leader to share their anger.

“Many voters believe that getting angry is somehow a good thing in a leader, and that the apparent absence of anger betokens someone who is out of touch or insensitive to the moral dimensions of the problem,” says psychiatrist Ronald Pies of SUNY Upstate Medical Center in New York. “Obama hasn’t been able to show people that he was feeling their anger, which makes them angrier.”

According to a recent Newsweek Poll, about three-quarters of angry voters were more likely to support a candidate who expressed anger about the economy and jobs, federal spending, taxes and the deficit. Based on the November 2nd results, these predictions rang true.

I doubt that Barack Obama’s failure, so far, to achieve many of the goals he stated as a candidate is due to his cool and controlled behavior. But I wouldn’t be surprised if not showing voters that he felt their anger and not expressing much passion during the mid-term elections had a strong impact on the results.

People constantly observe our behavior and form theories about our character and ability to perform. While times have changed and PR, like marketing, follows new trends, some basics remain unchanged, including the importance of having a clear picture of the image we want to present and expressing it to others.

We are walking advertisements for ourselves. Our appearance and behavior have an enormous impact on the way people perceive us. When we look and act the part, we reinforce who we are and what we can offer. When we keep our goals in mind and, more important, keep in mind the people who can help us achieve those goals, we a bound to have greater success.

Nevertheless, while physical appearance and appropriate behavior are fundamental to successfully projecting our image, we should never forget the importance of credibility and authenticity. Without these key characteristics, any attempt to influence people and gain their trust will be undermined. Only by presenting ourselves in a way that is true to who we are and can be believed by others, can we perform to the level we expect.