A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

But what if they’re the wrong words?

Recently, HMS Queen Elizabeth posted the latest in a long line of epic photos from her recent exploits. The one in question was of her and her task group all steaming along in perfect formation or ‘the photex’ as it’s known. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Task Group in close formation

The picture has, as ever, divided opinion on Miltwitter. Not down normal fault lines (the ‘good old days’ brigade have been quiet on this one) but between those who love the power implicit in a good formation photograph (the majority I would say) and those that are exasperated because this type of photo is increasingly seen to represent naval operations when it palpably does not. 

What do I mean by this? In this case, lateral separation between ships will have been c.100 yards. This means that the nine ships of the task group are all crammed into a box approximately 600 by 200 yards, or 0.03 of a square mile – less than the area of Portsmouth Harbour. The Dover Strait, which would normally be considered a confined operating area, is c.1200 square nms. The Gulf, which can also feel tight, particularly if something is flying at you very fast, is 135,000 square nms whilst the largest operating area out there stretches from the Horn of Africa to India and down to Seychelles and is in excess of 3.2 million square miles: 

CTF 150 Operating Area

If you’re in the Admiralty and, say, approaching a defence review where everything is up for grabs, you can see why the popular photex image, that totally misrepresents the way you operate, could be frustrating. Rather like the notion that a ‘teenager can take down a carrier with their phone’, it suggests a level of vulnerability and simplicity that just isn’t true. It then doesn’t represent the (expensive) technological, logistical, intelligence and communications effort implicit in conducting disaggregated operations over many thousands of miles. 

In PR terms, we immediately come up against the conundrum faced by the Royal Navy since before Nelson. On the one hand there are large parts of the population who have limited or no exposure to the RN for which ‘the photex’ provides excellent outreach. On the other hand, there are decision makers and influencers who know plenty about the navy but perhaps not enough to know that this isn’t how ships fight. Images are incredibly powerful and decisions are made on them – it doesn’t help if they portray misleading information.

This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done. In fact, the training benefits of getting ships in formation are significant; from communications to navigation to close quarters manoeuvring. It’s a sufficiently difficult thing to achieve (well) that when operating with, dare I say it, lower tier navies, the photex sometimes becomes a primary objective. And once you’ve formed up and ticked all those boxes, you may as well take a photo of it – the aviators wouldn’t be doing anything else anyway – and then publish it to the fullest extent. The alternative would be to hold it back which would be churlish and besides, how is one supposed to represent pictorially the true scale of naval operations? Dots on a radar isn’t going to cut it:


So, the photex is here to stay: loved by navigators; tolerated by captains; dreaded by officers of the watch; liked by stood-down operations rooms teams and pretty much ignored by everyone else onboard (until they try and sneak onto the upper deck for a crafty smoke). Submariners don’t take part in them anymore because they’re not dashing enough and so feel obliged to whitter on about it being ‘a group of targets’ before posting a peri-phot that’s supposed to signify a ‘win’. Yawn. And actually, (serious point!) doesn’t help the vulnerability argument either. 

Also boring

Finally, from a communications perspective it is perfectly normal to have disparate target audiences and therefore a campaign that requires different messages and channels. If there was one Royal Navy message that could do it all, it would have been done by now, many times. 

Published by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant and partner at www.SPP.global, an international communications consultancy. He specialises in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

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