Here’s a test for you. Open Instagram and go through the first 10 posts. How many of them are people you know and how many are brands, influencers, ads or celebrities? I just tried this and to no surprise, only one post out of the 10 was from someone I know. Among the other content, I had two paid ads, one celebrity, five influencers, and one brand.
For some this realisation is old news, but recently I’ve become increasingly aware of just how much social media content I consume isn’t actually from my friends and family. While not all celebrity, influencer, or brand content is ad related, I think (as a PR person particularly) it’s easy to get hyperaware and hypercritical of these often perfectly curated posts. I tend to find myself keeping an eagle-eye out for sneaky product placement in influencers’ and celebrities’ posts or trying to guess what they’re promoting before reading the caption (which as many of you know, is often totally unrelated to the picture’s content). Like many others, I’m also guilty of occasionally comparing myself or my life to those I see on social media. Most of the time I can roll my eyes and scroll past another run-of-the-mill ‘attractive woman holding product she probably doesn’t use’ picture, but of course from time-to-time I’m jealous of someone travelling to an amazing country, who looks fantastic, or appears to be super successful.
I’m not alone in this. In fact, research published by Mary Sherlock and Danielle Wagstaff in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture recently showed that for women there’s a correlation between the frequency of Instagram use and depressive symptoms, self-esteem, general and physical appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction. But of course, social media often presents things that aren’t really as they are in reality – it’s a highlight reel, stylised with the perfect filter to show off people ‘living their best life’. But what toll does this have on influencers?
Social media influencers are in a true popularity contest, played out in front of thousands of followers. They need to have the most appealing content for their medium, post constantly, and essentially open the door to their whole lives (and in turn people’s comments on their lives – positive and negative) in order to build their following and maintain their place. It can be a pretty vicious cycle, especially since a social media hiatus will be negatively punished by social media algorithms – something that was the case for young YouTuber Soy Jessi who took a break from YouTube when her mum passed away.
The pressure to push out so much content and present a perfect life can take a serious toll on influencers’ mental health. YouTuber Bobby Burns describes himself as the ‘poster child for internet burnout’. He says influencers know the lifestyle is bad for them, saying they create a fake personality that faces constant public judgement – but yet they keep going because it’s addictive. Another Instagram influencer, Ruby Matthews, recently spoke out about using cocaine, coffee and cigarettes to maintain her figure and said this is common practice in the influencer space, while the infamous Zoella has also admitted to feeling ‘suffocated’ and ‘disconnected’ from too much social media use.
This presents an ethical dilemma for PR people. Influencer PR is, of course, very common and effective these days across various platforms, despite speculation rising on whether the influencer bubble is bursting. The way in which we use it is changing to increasingly prioritise ‘microinfluencers’, but this change is mainly about getting the best return on investment from the influencer you choose to work with.
When searching for an influencer, there’s generally a sweet spot on who you’re trying to find: it’s someone who has a following that is largely made up of people you want to know about the brand you’re representing, who comes at a fair price point, has other content relevant to the brand on their channel, and can speak to about the brand in an authentic and trustworthy way. It can be difficult to hit this sweet spot with all four of those, but it’s interesting that there’s little consideration for who the person really is behind it all. That aspect does come into the ‘authentic voice’ and ‘relevant content’ pieces, but that’s more about how they present themselves – not who they are in reality.
Think about how many generic Instagram pictures you’ve seen of an influencer doing something hyper-stylised with a caption like “How cute is my new floor mat? Love having this under my feet every day, and it’s now 25% off | AD” (Okay, but I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure you get my point).
So how can PR people better support influencers’ well-being? While it’s not our responsibility (or qualification) to manage their mental health, there’s ethical considerations we can keep in mind before working with an influencer that will help protect them accordingly.
The PRCA Code of Conduct and CIPR Code of Conduct both give great guidelines that can be applied to influencer work. Here’s some steps with these codes in mind:
With all this in mind, take another look at those top 10 posts that come up in your Instagram home feed and get analytical. Do they actually feel authentic? Do they really seem like they use that brand? Are they a trustworthy source on this product or service? This isn’t to make you think badly of the influencer – it’s to help you remember there’s a person behind it and to help you better target your next campaign.
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