Paul Ryan’s Blunder: Lessons from a Soup Kitchen Photo-Op

This post has been updated following reports that Paul Ryan indeed washed dirty dishes at the soup kitchen.

A photo-op staged by the Romney campaign is landing the vice presidential candidate in some hot water days later. Following a town hall meeting in Ohio this past Saturday, Paul Ryan visited a soup kitchen with the media, donned an apron, and washed some dishes. So where’s the harm?

Initial coverage following the photo-op came from unsatisfied reporters that were barred from covering Ryan’s exchange with apparently homeless Ohioans outside the charity as photographers were allowed to click away.

Reports then surfaced quoting the displeased head of the religious nonprofit. Brian Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, stated that the Romney campaign “ramrodded their way” into the soup kitchen without requesting to visit the charity. The Romney campaign replied that an advance staffer received the ok for the impromptu visit from a “woman in charge on site.”

So what can we learn from a photo-op that produced negative headlines?


When creating a photo-op for the media it is important that the event has purpose. Photographers are quick to pick up on fluff. Make sure that there is depth to the occasion and enough action to allow for several representations on the same theme. A heartfelt exchange with down-and-out people provided Ryan with a wonderful opportunity to have his views recorded for public consumption.

Location, Location, Location

Location plays into photo-ops as much as the objects or people at them. You have to consider the entire space and distractions that are likely to occur. In Ryan’s case, a soup kitchen was a great way to show that he connects with people in need. By barring reporters from a fairly predictable soup kitchen scenario he became less open and showed that he may be unsure of his ability to handle spontaneous debate. The campaign may have been making an effort to protect the privacy of the homeless individuals, however that should entail the barring of the photographers as well.


Receiving approval for a photo-op location, whether internally or externally, is a must. It is your duty to scout the site, meet with the owners of the location, and discuss the finite details of the event. Ryan’s photo-op was impromptu however it appears that a miscommunication between several people has now become the story.


After you have received approval for a photo-op you must continue to keep everyone in the loop. Ask yourself if you spoke to the right person? Will everyone in the area be briefed on what to expect during the event? Ryan’s advance staffer should have ensured a thoughtful action for the candidate and coordinated any meet and greets. Handling an impromptu photo-op requires creativity and a skill for improvisation.


The most important aspect of any photo-op is the performance. Ensure that the people being photographed are performing action with purpose. When I headed publicity for a veterinary hospital I frequently brought photographers and media crews into surgical suites during operations and into recovery wards, with owner permission of course. The goal of any photo-op is to show the world something that they would not normally experience themselves and add depth to the narrative. It is a chance to share your mission, enhance your brand, shine light on an issue, and make an impact. Aim high.

How do you create photo-ops? Share your tips in the comments section below.


2 thoughts on “Paul Ryan’s Blunder: Lessons from a Soup Kitchen Photo-Op

  1. The person you mentioned, Brian Antal, has voted in several Democrat primaries, and the dishes Paul Ryan washed WERE dirty. While the advice in your article is good, SOME of the “facts” you mentioned were wrong or tainted by other information left out of your article. This is still a good lesson though, for all. It shows that too many “journalists” in the main stream media are biased, sloppy, incompetent, or some combination thereof and you relied on them to actually do their jobs. Lesson learned: look at other news sources, even – gasp – “New Media” before jumping to conclusions.
    Here is the latest on the Paul Ryan dirty dishes story:

    • Thank you for your comment and for providing the link. I have updated the post with information from the article, however please note that it was issued after my original post. At the time I could only go with the information provided by the media as you point out. As a standard practice, I checked various new and traditional media sources with differing political leanings. I appreciate your assistance in ensuring the information provided here is as up to date as possible.

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