This term has crept in to business speak, despite the fact that optics refers to the study of light or instruments with lenses, but never means either. It's a metaphoric use of course. It tends to mean that care ought to be taken in communicating something since an individual or group may respond negatively. The assumption here is that having to directly address that negative reaction would be bad.
It's innocent enough in its typical expression-"manage the optics", which I hear repeatedly, sounds no different than managing perceptions. Everyone does that to a greater or lesser extent. But I've been noticing what I think is an unintended consequence of a rise in managing the optics. That it drives communication that is purposefully vague, or worse, that conceals or falsifies information, in the service of creating better optics.
Communication is always nuanced, and it's important to use those nuances to express new ideas and illustrate distinctions. But in the myriad ways I've heard optics used, it's typically been to draw attention away from, minimize, or obfuscate an issue. I've yet to hear anyone say, we need to "be mindful of the optics", in the service of trying to be clear or direct. Would you want your team to present to you about something important, and be thinking about managing the optics? I doubt it.
I suggest that when you hear this term it should be a signal for you to inquire (or consider for yourself) about why it's important. Assume positive intent and that nothing insidious is happening, but look further. What reaction is it that you're trying to encourage or prevent? Are you avoiding a necessary disagreement or conflict? Is there bad news that has to be addressed? None of this is to say that you shouldn't present your ideas, performance, or plans with a positive approach. If you are hearing the term "optics" from others or in your head though, it's worth asking what's really going on.