The evolution of third party influence and the place of public relations practitioners
By Sean Hixson
Within the world of consumer marketing communications, few things are hotter than tapping social personality influencers to promote a brand, help sell a product or sway opinions.
The fact that consumers spend a large percentage of their waking hours staring at screens, devouring content on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, makes “influencer relations management” (IRM) an appropriate strategy to incorporate into a broader communications plan. A recent study claims the average U.S. adult spends three hours and 48 minutes a day on computers, tablets and smartphones. At the same time, industry experts have effectively argued (here, here and here) that consumers view influencer recommendations as more authentic than a traditional advertisement. So, as backed by actual data and anecdotes (there is a good chance you are reading this story on a mobile device!), IRM should be in any good brand marketer’s toolbox.
With that said, challenges can arise when those brand marketers partner with certain types of agencies (or in-house specialists) to use the tools in that toolbox.
As marketing communications has evolved, the traditional swim lanes of paid, earned and owned agencies have gotten murkier. Advertising creative agencies are starting to expand into media relations. Media buying agencies are working in social strategy. PR agencies are creating amazingly compelling video content. In part, this is all true. The best marketers and marketing partners are highly versatile, with subject matter experts able to swim at a base level of effectiveness in multiple lanes.
However, when looking specifically at IRM, these swim lanes may become even more confusing.
Which agency/marketing discipline should own IRM? Much of the content inherently lives on social platforms, so should a social agency lead IRM? The relationships with the influencers are often paid, so should a media buying agency lead IRM?
I would strongly argue that neither is appropriate.
Social personality influencer management is a direct evolution of a core competency of public relations as a practice – convincing third parties to think about and talk about a brand or company. On behalf of their clients, PR practitioners work with news reporters, media outlets, bloggers and more, to share relevant news with an outlets’ readers, viewers or listeners – to inform the opinions of those people consuming their stories.
Importantly, as traditional media relations and social media have converged (many traditional reporters share and promote news on social media), PR practitioners are now incredibly fluent in social media efforts. In fact, many PR agencies and practitioners are so skilled, they manage the social channels for brands, local to global brands
Now, contemplate the elements of an “influencer” as thought of in 2019
· Someone who has relevance on a particular subject matter and/or has clout with a specific audience. (Hmmm, sounds like a traditional media outlet reporter)
· Influencers are considered key leaders who can drive a brand’s message through awareness and sway brand preferences, buying decisions and loyalty of the broader population. (Hmmm, sounds like a respected online media columnist who does product reviews)
· Now, ponder the most influential influencers of them all, celebrities. (Hmmm, PR agencies routinely engage with celebrities and well-known personalities to promote a brand via media interviews, lending their voice of validation or endorsement)
All in all, PR practitioners have been partnering with “influencers” since the inception of media relations as a skill, so PR practitioners are best equipped to lead IRM. IRM is in a PR practitioner’s blood.
Even so, some would argue that influencer selection tools, powered by AI, have made this job quite a bit easier. However, just as media/reporter lists are not enough to select media relations targets, automated tools take out the incredibly important personal touch PR practitioners apply to influencer selection.
Consider how PR practitioners create an earned media strategy. By careful, hands-on research (i.e. consuming a media outlet’s content), PR practitioners contemplate a media outlet's…
· Authority/credibility (ensuring the outlet truly knows the subject matter)
· Core audience and relevance to the brand’s target consumer (either mass or niche – a high reach or relevant, engaged audience)
· Quality of content (i.e., long form reporting, listicles, videos, GIFs)
· Reach (circulation, unique weekly visitors, etc)
· Geographic relevance (global, national, regional, local)
· Post-coverage paid amplification (earned syndication with relevant targeting)
Those exact same criteria are used when selecting and evaluating social personality influencers — tools simply cannot perform all those tasks. One must carefully review an influencer’s content to ensure it is a fit for a brand, ultimately conducting a risk and issues assessment. PR agencies and practitioners are experts in evaluating the nuanced characteristics and credibility of influential third parties — which is often lost through “automatic” solutions.
Further, PR practitioners are highly in tune to particular brand sensitivities around any subject matter and can add that dimension into the evaluation of a third-party influencer as well. The identification and selection of influencers for any given campaign is the most important step of the process — you do this element wrong, and your campaign will fail — so cutting corners with quick tools is not the answer.
Now, consider how PR practitioners evaluate the success of an earned placement for a client.
· Location of the brand name (headline, lead, etc.) within a story
· Brand’s key message penetration
· Overall reach
· Pick-up by other outlets
· Clicks (both organic and paid) on embedded hyperlinks in the story
After a piece of branded influencer content goes live, those exact same criteria are deliberated when evaluating the success.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, ponder the media echo chamber — content and coverage begets more content and coverage. When guided by PR practitioners, strategically grounded influencer content earns media coverage (find a great example here and here) pivoting back to a PR agency’s original core competency — grabbing consumer attention via third parties.
IRM is truly an evolution of media relations.
In closing, the fundamental reason social personality influencers are deployed across brand marketing is that influencers build confidence and often validate, as well as reinforce, our messaging. Influencers build relationships with their audiences and breakthrough in a way that make followers feel like the influencer is their friend or family member. Consumers trust influencers because influencers are relatable and credible. Now, trust a PR practitioner to execute highly successful influencer programs.