Photoshop won’t prevent a PR backlash—and manipulating photos can be perceived as undermining public trust.
The decision to add two women into a group photo of tech luminaries—all men—at an industry gathering in Italy might have seemed like a good idea. However, an intrepid reporter and social media users were able to deduce the manipulation.
The incident serves as a reminder to communicators that consumers want the truth—and violating that trust will release the social media hounds. It also reveals the limits of technology to fool the public.
How did GQ come to publish the doctored photo in the first place?
On Monday, I read the GQ story about the tech trip to Cucinelli’s village in Solomeo, Italy, and found the picture to be a bit suspicious. […]
At first glance, the woman in the back row, identified by GQ as SunRun CEO Lynn Jurich, has a slightly pixelated face. Her lighting and coloring appear different from the rest of the photograph’s subjects, and her head isn’t quite in line with what is supposedly her leg and foot. In a second, more candid Instagram post from Cucinelli, Jurich was nowhere to be found.
The appearance of a second woman on the far left of the group photograph, identified by GQ as Peek CEO Ruzwana Bashir, also seemed suspect. In the picture, she makes no contact with the other participants, while the lighting on her upper body and legs differs from the lighting patterns in the rest of the photo. It appeared to have been manipulated.
But why would anyone do something so absurd? In my mind, I thought that an all-male photograph might not be the best optics for a bunch of rich tech entrepreneurs, especially during a time when women and minorities are underrepresented in the industry. But why would someone doctor a photograph for such a low-stakes item for Instagram and a lifestyle magazine? Was the photo truly manipulated to appear more diverse? Or was this simply a case of “Please photoshop my friend into this family picture. They took it.”
For Buzzfeed, the break in the case came after a reverse Google image search turned up the original—a chummy, all-male group shot.
I replicated @benjymous’s steps, and traced that photo back to the LinkedIn account of Ferdinando de Bellis, a Milan-based partner at Barabino & Partners, an Italian communications firm that’s done work for Cucinelli. Two weeks ago, de Bellis posted the all-male picture and the more candid group shot to his LinkedIn, celebrating the visionaries who had come to visit Solomeo, including former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who appears in none of the photos, doctored or otherwise. I emailed these new findings to GQ and sent questions to a Cucinelli spokesperson.
A little more than four hours after the original Twitter discovery, a Cucinelli representative sent me a statement explaining what had happened.
“When we realized we didn’t have a shot where all attendees were represented, we added in photos of two female CEOs taken during the weekend,” a spokesperson wrote to BuzzFeed News. “The photos were shared and approved with all the participants including the two women, Lynn Jurich and Ruzwana Bashir, before posting them on Instagram and they also shared the group photo on their own Instagram handles.”
“We meant no harm or had any malicious intent in doing this and we are sorry,” they added, declining to answer if the brand commonly doctored press or product photos. Cucinelli’s Instagram bio reads, “The eternal Values of Beauty, Humanity and Truth are the Ideal and the Guide to all our actions.”
The image spurred outcry online from critics who say big tech companies haven’t done enough to promote and protect gender equality in the workplace.
Many on Twitter were dismayed by the story:
Why women in tech are being Photoshopped in instead of hired?
— Antonio Vieira Santos🧙🏼♂️ #UITP2019 (@AkwyZ) June 17, 2019
You know the state of diversity in tech is bad when you have to Photoshop in the women. Depressing. Play diversity bingo instead of crying. https://t.co/kZmNKYgiUW
— Rani Molla (@ranimolla) June 17, 2019
Others suggested that tech companies should do more to address structural inequality in the workplace:
Pro-tip for Silicon Valley boys club: hire more women into tech and you won’t have to photoshop them in. 💁🏾💁
"This Picture Featuring 15 Tech Men And 2 Women Looked Doctored. The Women Were Photoshopped In." >> https://t.co/AfYktLyCMH pic.twitter.com/KNwDaxMayO
— Women's Foundation (@WomensFound) June 17, 2019
For some, the photo provided visual confirmation of tech’s gender equality problem, which is perhaps why the backlash has been so strong.
“No wonder activists are skeptical about real progress in Silicon Valley,” said Deborah Singer, chief marketing officer at Girls Who Code, a nonprofit trying to alleviate the gender gap in tech.
“This is a culture problem that’s keeping women out of tech — it’s sexism, racism, harassment, discrimination, bias. And this Photoshop story is the perfect illustration.”
She added, “What’s so deeply ironic about this Photoshop scandal is that in the time it took them to Photoshop Lynn and Ruzwana into the photo, we could have recommended 100 women for them to actually invite and include.” Representatives for Brunello Cucinelli, the luxury designer the tech summit was visiting, did not reply when asked if more than two women had been invited to the event.
Many are also tired of being used to symbolize a level of diversity that they don’t see embodied throughout an organization or industry.
“Photoshopping women in, diverse employees taking a picture together — that’s branding,” said Bärí Williams, vice president of legal, business, and policy affairs at All Turtles, a company that uses AI to help startups.
“How are those employees treated? How often are they in rooms where decisions are being made?”
These types of tactics are at play across the tech industry.
“One of my greatest frustrations when it comes to diversity is seeing tech companies putting people of color and women on their websites and promo materials, but if you walk on campus the makeup of employees is extremely homogenous,” Mark Luckie, a digital media strategist and former manager at Twitter and Facebook, told Recode.
Jurich, one of the photoshopped figures, called the reaction misguided.
In reading the media headlines of my participation at Brunello Cucinelli’s symposium on the soul and the economy, I worry that we are focusing on the wrong thing. What women want is to be treated equally. I can say without hesitation that I was welcomed and was an equal participant in an important conversation about humanity, economics and the environment. It’s a shame that this important conversation is being overshadowed.
The Cucinelli team endeavored to ensure everyone in attendance was featured in the group photo. Ruzwana and I happened to be away when this picture was taken and agreed to be added. There was no “official picture” for the event, the purpose was about a discussion and an exchange of ideas.
About the bigger issue of diversity in Silicon Valley, I don’t believe in getting angry about this. That only creates more suffering. Let’s take the emotion out of it and be the change we want.
However, that response fell flat for some LinkedIn users.
Communications manager Mai P. Tran replied:
Okay, we get why you were photoshopped in – you weren’t available when the photo was taken. That explanation makes sense. However, you’re missing the bigger picture here, and the reason why people are upset. Just because your company is gender equitable in its hiring practices, doesn’t discount the larger, systemic issues of the tech industry. It would have been better if you had acknowledged the underlying reason why people are upset, rather than tell us to not be angry about this. It’s these types of responses and reactions that perpetuate barriers that keep smart, ambitious women out. For many, there is no seat at table for them.
How are you trying to create more diversity with your brand image and institutional messaging, PR Daily readers, and what do you think of the photoshopping incident itself?