Staged photographs speak volumes about government PR

The old, boring style of government news releases has been replaced by a splashier, photo-focused format, which perhaps says something about Confederation Building's image-making intentions, Azzo Rezori writes.

Stock photos and glossy images push focus away from ministerial words

There was a time — not so long ago, really — when news releases by the provincial government were just plain grey print consisting of routine headlines, information given in standard bureaucratese, quotations by ministers responsible for whatever was being touted, a backgrounder if necessary, and (at the bottom) the names of the communications directors and specialists who put the packages together.

Then came one ground-breaking news release, April 29, last year.

The point is to take us from the time and place of the minister's announcement to the more timeless reality of where the announcement is expected to make a difference.

Premier Dunderdale Advocates for Issues Important to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at Atlantic Premiers Meeting, the headline announces. The time and place is the 22nd session of the Council of Atlantic Premiers in White Point, N.S. The release quotes Dunderdale saying she raised issues such as open access to energy resources, and how recent changes to employment insuarance will affect the region. 

And then, at the bottom, is a stamp-sized photograph of the four premiers, so small you can barely make out who's who — until you click on it, and up it pops, full size, and Dunderdale right there, in the middle.

One week later, May 6, it happens again. This time the release has a picture of then NL Services Minister Nick McGrath, posing with Mark Balsom, chair of the Newfoundland chapter of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers. They're promoting Occupational Health and Safety Week.

On the following day, another picture shows Health and Community Services Minister Susan Sullivan sitting at a desk and smiling into the camera while signing something for Mental Health Week. The day after that, Tom Hedderson, the minister responsible for climate change and energy efficiency, is seen at a podium addressing a crowd of home builders. A trend has been set. 

Cheques, declarations, sods

The pictures have a certain community-newspaper feel to them. Politicians presenting cheques, signing declarations and agreements, turning sods, speaking to crowds and mixing with them, shown here, there and everywhere doing what politicians are supposed to do in public.

The government released this photo of Tom Marshall in a canola field last August. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)
My own favourite is a photo of Premier Tom Marshall, then minister of natural resources, standing in the yellow blaze of a mid-August canola field somewhere in southeast Saskatchewan. Minister Concludes Trip on Hydraulic Fracking, the headline informs us.

In the distance over Marshall's right shoulder you can see a pumpjack sucking oil produced by fracking out of the ground. Marshall looks into the camera as if posing for the family album but not quite sure he wants to, disarmingly without a trace of self-importance.

Change comes again when a government news release on June 13 carries a picture showing Beachy Cove Elementary students Julianne and Rachel Moss receiving the Governor General's Caring Canadian Awards. 

Not a politician in sight. 

Next follows a release by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture which details of a recent crackdown on salmon poachers and posts pictures of their seized boat and illegal catch. No minister either. The politicians' exclusive claim to the photo corner of government news releases has been broken.

Photos to the fore

But the biggest change has yet to come.

November 12. Shrimp and Crab Workshop Promotes Economic Prosperity for Northern Labrador Harvesters, the headline boasts. But it's not the headline that draws your attention. It's the photograph immediately below it. 

The template for government news releases now puts the spotlight on large photographs. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)
Huge and bold, it shows a medium-sized fishing vessel tied up at what appear to be holding pens for fish. What the scene has to do with the announcement is not immediately clear. But that's not the point. 

The point is to take us from the time and place of the minister's announcement to the more timeless reality of where the announcement is expected to make a difference — out there in your world and mine. The people's world.

And, according to the news releases since then, it's a stunning world captured by stunning photography. Two perfectly-positioned fishermen emptying a caplin seine below the headline that promises a $400-million investment in rural development. 

A touching scene of a teacher and student at a writing board to announce that Ecole Sainte-Anne is getting its roof fixed. A seniors couple radiating happiness in a meadow awash with shimmering mid-summer light while the headline states that government recreation programming supports families and communities. 

Idyllic, and heavily used, views

And perhaps the most composed and staged of all — a gorgeous young family, the pretty mother's auburn hair ruffled by a breeze from somewhere, the handsome father's gaze into the distance so thoughtful and tender it wouldn't surprise you if he wrote romantic poetry, the two golden-haired daughters a study of crystalline northern innocence. 

Behind them, perfectly observing the laws of composition, a horizontal sequence of wheat-coloured barren, deep-blue ocean, and wispy-blue sky. You want to be there with them, and the government promises you will. Continuing Investments in Policing Make Communities Safer for Families, the headline asserts.

It is, of course, a stock image, one that has been used at least a dozen times around the world, including on websites like Tampa Bay Parent. 

The old age of words is having to make more and more room for the new age of images. It almost looks as if the people behind the province's famous tourism ads and their powerful imagery have been engaged to bewitch us, the consumers of government goods and services, with the same kind of magic. 

You may not like everything you read, you may not even believe it, but how can you resist images, especially when they promise nothing short of Eden?

About the Author

Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.


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