Anatomy of a leadership video

Needed more than ever, even a simple CEO message can get complicated in a pandemic.

Blue Sky News videographer Natalie Fiorilli tests the shot for a leadership video from Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis

There’s a lot of talk about the need for leadership right now, and not just in political circles. Getting your own organization’s leaders talking—to employees, customers, media and the general public—has moved to the top of communicators’ to-do lists.

Video is a great medium for what our industry likes to call “thought leadership,” and potentially quite effective at a time when town halls, press conferences and other live meetings seem like quaint events from that bygone era … also known as February.

But producing good video at a time of social distancing and working from home presents its own set of problems.

Determined to overcome those obstacles, the news team at Pittsburgh International Airport began planning for a series of videos featuring CEO Christina Cassotis. The videos would run on Blue Sky News, the airport’s brand journalism site, and on social media.

I work with this team, so I had a bird’s eye view of this whole process. Or should I say, a FaceTime view? (More on that in a minute.)

Here are a few takeaways from a typical video shoot made anything but ordinary by the global pandemic.

1. Start with a good reason for video.

Video is not always the best way to get out a leadership message, and it can backfire if your executive is uncomfortable in front of the camera. YouTube is littered with stiff talking heads and robotic, uninspired oratory.

PIT’s comms team had a good argument for video. Airports—and airlines—are among the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Even with few people flying, airports are critical national infrastructure. You can’t just close them down, and that means people still have to go to work. You can’t run an airport from your kitchen table.

2. Choose the right location.

Even if you’re shooting from your home office, pay attention to location and the background that will appear in the frame. I’ve watched too many videos shot against a blank wall, an elevator bank, windows with too much sun or in front of some hallucinogenic artwork.

As news junkies, my wife and I have become obsessed with picking out what’s on the bookcases behind the guests speaking from their homes on cable news programs. (Admit it, you’re doing it, too.)

Christina, who is splitting time between home and the airport like many of her staff, wanted to be where the work was getting done, so the team shot videos from the airport’s Operations Center and in front of a cargo plane unloading medical supplies.

In one of the more challenging videos, we taped her on the runway in front of about 100 idle planes the airport parked on its taxiways and runways to accommodate its airline partners.

We all agreed that would make the perfect backdrop for a leadership message, but it took a little doing. The entire comms team was working from home. I was at home in Chicago. Everyone working at the airport was practicing safe distancing.

Two Blue Sky staffers, photographer Beth Hollerich and writer Natalie Fiorilli, who both shoot video, went out to the runway about an hour before Christina arrived to look at possible frames for the shot. They patched me in through FaceTime so I could see what they were seeing.

The shot was impressive: dozens of planes, idled by the pandemic, sitting on the runway. We wanted to show the array of planes but also a tight shot of Christina. In a leadership video, you want to see the emotional power of the words in the boss’s eyes.

But planes are huge and people are not. We tried several angles until we found one that captured Christina front and center in the frame, and the planes stretched out behind her. Phew.

3. Write a good script.

Christina is great on her feet. She’s dynamic and conversational. She’s what you want for a leadership video, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. She doesn’t like to read off a teleprompter, which ruins the whole effect you’re going for.

But this was a one-shot video, which meant she had to do it in one take.

Video is a collaborative experience between the subject and the video producer. All good videos have two things: emotion and storytelling. As time was short, we wrote a script with the basic leadership message and sent it to Christina.

The night before the shoot, she reworked it, and what she added was superb. She talked about her father, a Marine pilot who later flew commercial airlines. She shared her love for aviation and talked about how people were going to fly again.

Pittsburgh isn’t exactly Sun City, but the day we shot this video was sunny and bright. Too bright. The high sun and cloudless sky made Christina squint during the first few takes. Then the video gods smiled upon us, a few clouds rolled in and Christina nailed it.

People who later watched the video said that the shot looked so good that they thought it might be a green screen. But it was the real thing, and it worked.

See for yourself:

Jim Ylisela is co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group.

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