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Can influencers take the heat post Fyre?

Sometimes it is quite irritating to work in PR. Far too much time is still spent on worrying about who and what we are, sparked by TV programmes such as Flack. Where’s our confidence? If we are generally helping our clients to build a positive profile and helping to diffuse any negativity around their brand or proposition then we are doing our job, as per Francis Ingham's tweet last week.

Sometimes we are doing a great deal more and making change in the world - read the ode to PR which the inimitable @SparklyPinchy published just this week for the Holmes Report.

Now the navel gazing is continuing as we consider what we as an industry mean by ‘influencer’ and what THAT then means in terms of how we can (and now, whether we should, post Fyre) use them to engage our own clients’ audiences. PR Week had quite a time this week attempting to get to the bottom of this - continued with a discussion on Twitter that left no-one any wiser.

Dan Neale of Alfred has just published a great piece on why we are concerning ourselves with this instead of the ethics of working with influencers to benefit our clients and their audiences. I think we started getting confused when we started to describe someone whose opinion holds weight as ‘an influencer’ rather than an influential person. Let’s stop the insanity! In simple terms an influencer is someone whose opinion matters to others and on the basis of which they may form their own opinion on a product, service, individual or brand/organisation.

Someone can be an influencer - and not even be on social media! I love this tweet from Maxim PR in the comments after the PR Week influencer piece about the Parish Council (I hail from a UK village - such people’s word is the law…)

Obviously someone can be more or less influential depending on many factors, but we are ALL influencers. I love clothes and shoes and I am often asked by my (real life) friends where I have bought something or what shops are best for work attire. I love to recommend my favourite shops (as this is for a work ‘audience’ - mostly Whistles but for important meetings, check out The Fold for beautiful workwear made with Italian fabrics. See?).

However, these brands have no idea who I am! I’m not getting off point here, I am saying that everyone is potentially an influencer. I do not follow “celebrities” on Insta or Twitter but I place huge stake in any recommendation from someone I respect, whether that’s a friend, or perhaps a journalist or someone in the public eye who seems to be quite sensible.

Obviously brands are less interested in the likes of me than in those whose recommendations have clout due to follower numbers and potential reach (although I’d argue that far more could be done with micro influencers in the right way, if brands can work out where to find them). 10 years ago we had a client, Amuso - a p2p entertainment platform. Our strategy was to work with what we called “connectors” - today we would call those people influencers, but the principle remains the same. Complement the traditional publicity via media outlets with p2p direct recommendations, using opinion to influence.

When any of this becomes relevant to us as marketeers, is when clients decide to engage with individuals and there is a transactional element at play which is not always clear.

Influencer marketing will only become more important as a way to reach consumers as traditional media continues to contract and reader numbers plummet. In the same way as blogs have become more regulated and bloggers are required to disclose if they have received payment or gifts, influencers should be treated in the same way.

The difference must be clear between a genuine recommendation vs. product endorsement, which is basically a promotion and should be viewed as advertising. Of course, because it is a person carrying that message rather than a magazine, it confers greater credibility and can be confusing for the audience which is why a) influencer marketing has such enormous scope as part of the mix, and b) why it needs to be properly policed.

The industry will self police as consumers wise up to the fact that people are taking money or gifts to make recommendations, and become sceptical particularly when a brand does not seem to fit naturally with the influencer - or if they are simply endorsing too many things.

Being highly selective about who and what they represent will ensure the influencer retains their cachet in terms of their attractiveness as a brand partner and their power to influence. This week I met Daniel Redgert of Swedish agency Redgert Comms and his UK VP, Asa Baav, to discuss a partnership with The PR Network. They have moved the agency from a traditional PR agency focused on media relations to an influencer marketing agency doing exciting and creative work for clients such as NASDAQ - using a few highly influential people.

DRC are working with a range of traditional and emerging brands using influencers to effect perception change and drive sales. They describe influencer marketing as rather like the “Wild West” and believe it needs to be properly policed, with brands and influencers adopting an open and ethical approach so consumers understand they are being sold to - albeit in a different way.

It will be very interesting to see whether once consumers understand that a celebrity is endorsing a product because they are being paid and not out of the goodness of their heart (or because they actually rate it) it affects their purchasing decision/view of the brand. At this point influencer relations will take up its rightful position in the mix alongside other paid channels.

We have enough to sort out with the above and much more without worrying about our own public image. We should be proud of what we do. But anyone who doesn’t enjoy shows that send up the PR profession clearly haven’t seen Veep. If we can’t laugh at ourselves...