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Optics, Co-Optics And Optic Art

Over the last 35 years the word has taken on a new meaning. In public relations and politics it references how the public sees something as opposed to


Over the last 35 years the word ìopticsî has taken on a new meaning. In public relations and politics it references how the public sees something as opposed to how it really is. In 2008 when CEOs representing the big three automakers went to Washington, D.C., to ask for $25 billion to avoid bankruptcy, they flew in private corporate jets. They may have made good arguments, but they had bad optics.

President Obama in his first weekly address of 2010 made important statements about the war against terrorism. But he was on vacation in Hawaii at the time ó bad optics.

Public relations professionals have always known there is more to decision-making than discerning right from wrong. One also has to factor in the appearance of right and wrong. The right decision can appear to be the right decision, or it can appear to be the wrong decision. The wrong decision can appear wrong or appear right. It depends.

One of the accomplishments of the public relations profession is that over the course of a century of practice it has slowly made political leaders and business executives aware that when they act, they need to consider how their actions appear to others. This is a useful consideration when selecting transportation to your bankruptcy hearing. And, had BP CEO Tony Hayward given it some thought, he would not have gone to a yacht race while his company was preparing to post a $17.2 billion second quarter loss and their Deepwater Horizon rig was still dumping 53 thousand barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

Quarry management might consider optics when neighbors complain about broken glass. Seismographic evidence or even a blast schedule can leave quarry executives absolutely certain that their blasting is not responsible. Yet, someone has sent in a $75 window-repair bill. Should the quarry not pay it on principle? What are the optics of that? Well, the homeowner goes to small claims court, the newspaper covers the story, and the quarry appears doubly irresponsible. Not only is it breaking windows, but also it is trying to foist the cost of doing business off onto poor residents who have to go to small claims court to get justice.

Used properly, optics should be factored in when making business decisions. What is the cost of the glass, $75? What would it cost if the company pays it, and then everyone for two blocks brings the quarry every broken glass bill, $7,500 a year? What will it cost if a NIMBY group successfully restricts operation times and blasting at the quarry, $100,000? Obviously, the numbers will depend on the circumstances.

Optics, however, should not be overemphasized. Sometimes one has to do what is fair and right regardless of how it looks. Letting optics override considerations of cost, fairness, and logic is co-optics. It is appearances co-opting the rational process by which we guide our actions.

IMAGINE A WORLD where all anyone was concerned about was optics. Marketing research would guide our every decision. Only candidates of average age with the optimum skin color and perfect teeth would be slated to run for office. Every word they utter would be tested with focus groups in advance. Voters would check opinion polls so that when they talked about politics and voted they would be assured of identifying with the most popular causes and candidates. Executives would announce layoffs with tears in their eyes. Laid off workers would walk and ride their bicycles to the unemployment agency. Everything we do would be artifice in support of artifice. Life would become optic art.

Optics is a useful concept. It should be part of everyone's business vocabulary. Politicians and the news media, however, should not let optics override common sense. And, on the other hand, quarries with ongoing community relations problems may need to give optics a little more weight when making decisions.


Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of ìAn Interviewing Rhetoric.î He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.