West Yorkshire Police have issued a statement to distance themselves from the Prime Minister’s decision to use a visit to their facilities to make a political speech.

Where the Police thought that Boris Johnson would limit his remarks to a new police recruitment drive, he actually used the occasion to discuss Brexit and political campaigning. Not only was this a breach of hospitality, but it also served to co-opt the image of the officers behind the Prime Minister as he gave his speech.

The episode demonstrates the importance of what we might call “optics” for speech-makers and spokespeople.

As well as the content of a message, comms teams need to consider the immediate context of its delivery. This was a lesson that Theresa May learned the hard way.

optics speeches
Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg

On the same day that Johnson co-opted the West Yorkshire Police officers, I was involved in an event at which the speakers were the Vice-President of the United States, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, and the Lord Mayor of London.

I snapped the photo below of the Vice-President’s podium, which travels with him, complete with teleprompters and bulletproof screens. Note that it includes the Vice-President’s seal and, in this case, the US and UK flags, symbolically side-by-side.

The Vice-President and the Secretary of State spoke from this podium. The Lord Mayor, meanwhile, spoke from the top table, which you can see in my photo in front of and beneath the wooden structure.

The top table position provides very different optics: instead of flags, there is the ceremonial sword and mace of the Mayoralty; instead of curtains and fabric, there is wooden panelling and gold detail.

At the podium, you’re speaking to the cameras; at the top table, you’re speaking to the guests in the room.

An interesting contrast, I think!