The media landscape has been changing for many years. COVID, however, has acted as a catalyst of this change – just as it has done for countless other sectors and industries. From 2019 to 2021, print subscription circulations fell by 7%, and single-sale copies by 11%. Put simply: when it comes to building reputations, shrinking media pools are becoming a bigger problem.

This places pressure on PR professionals  and journalists alike. On the journalist side of the aisle, they are thinly spread – often juggling multiple beats at once and increasingly being judged against engagement and click-through metrics. Adding to this, they’re completely inundated with emails and pitches.

On the PR agency side, the shrinking media pool has an obvious effect – it’s harder to secure the coverage our clients want. It’s harder to get in front of the right people, harder to build relationships, and harder to have our pitches seen and phone calls answered.

Without wishing to state the obvious, a change in landscape requires a change in approach. Of course, a big part of the solution is for PRs – and our clients – to be more creative and thoughtful in how we approach media. Having our finger on the pulse of changing markets and cultural moments, and tying our clients’ messaging into these in an authentic, interesting and valuable way for journalists, is crucial. Being more selective is also important – not every press release is relevant  to send to nationals (or anyone, sometimes!), and it’s important for PRs to be honest with our clients about this.

But there are numerous other ways to shape an organisation’s reputation, aside from media relations. Here’s just a few ways:

  1. Website content: This encapsulates a lot – resources such as blogs, customer case studies and testimonials, and the quality of the copy across a company’s site. Websites should showcase a brand and its purpose, as well as be a source of information – both for the service/product being offered and the wider market the organisation operates within.
  2. SEO: Tying into the above point, nailing search engine optimisation (SEO) is crucial. It’s all well and good having strong, informative content on a website, but if it’s never actually seen its value is somewhat lost. Perfecting an SEO strategy to give a company’s website the right exposure completes the formula.
  3. Social media: It’s near impossible to have a strong brand reputation in today’s world without some form of social media presence. Cultivating this presence through a strategy that involves consistent, on-message posting is key. Social media offers a way to showcase almost everything about a company – from its offering and resources, to its purpose, company culture and even job openings.
  4. Internal communications: A company can be offering the best service ever, but if it has eye-wateringly high employee turnover, low workplace satisfaction, and poor reviews on Glassdoor, its reputation is going to be impacted. Working on effective communication with employees with the goal of improving workplace happiness and culture, is at the heart of internal comms.

For us PRs, making clients aware of the many ways of building reputations, and ensuring that we ourselves are experts in these, is a non-negotiable. PRs, and the organisations they work with, need to begin thinking broader and deeper than media relations. Every company should now be thinking about the range of possibilities for PR, rather than gazing through the single lens of media coverage. Shaping a reputation that will carry a company forward is much more than a media profile alone.

It is estimated that there are between 3.2 and 37.8 million social media influencers. That’s millions of individuals relying on their personal brand to gain followers, secure brand deals and increase engagement on their relative platforms. Although many choose to turn their nose up at those who label themselves as ‘influencers’ and ‘content creators’, we can’t deny that those who are doing it right are reaping the rewards.

Logan Paul, for example, started making YouTube videos from the age of 10. His success on YouTube and Vine has since catapulted him into fame and he is now worth $35 million at the age of 26. Not too shabby for a few videos and a strong personal brand, right?

With the age of digitalisation upon us (any one fancy a virtual beer after work?), perhaps companies could learn a thing or two from those that have had such success with their online personal branding. Personal brand upkeep isn’t so dissimilar to maintaining a strong company brand after all; it’s about keeping up with trends, keeping content relevant, and appealing to your target audience.

In fact, if we take a look at some of Forbes’ golden rules for personal branding:

  1. Have a focus
  2. Be genuine
  3. Be consistent

It’s clear that there are many similarities  between those individuals trying to monetise their online presence, and a company seeking to establish a strong online brand. Although technology has revolutionised marketing, companies must be aware of how they sell themselves online and what their messaging is truly saying.

Influencers have always seized the opportunity to glamourise their realities, editing photos and posts to make their lives seem perfect and unattainable. While these posts may be nice to look at, they can actually alienate your following into a sense of ‘me’ and ‘them’. If what you’re posting is entirely unrelatable, you can only really achieve a surface-level connection with your following.

Recently, we have seen an influx of influencers who are doing away with filters and photoshop, and instead portraying an honest representation of their lives, good and bad. These more genuine posts create instead a notion of ‘us’. Followers are able to relate to the posts, inspiring open discussions and driving engagement.

So, what can brands learn from this?

That honesty is the best policy. If a brand is not transparent, customers will be hesitant to take the risk that comes with giving the benefit of the doubt to an unfamiliar company. As much as aesthetic and image hold a great deal of importance, companies shouldn’t rely solely on looks to engage their customers.

As we transition into this digital future, it seems that companies could have a lot to learn from influencers and content creators. Companies and individuals alike must keep their brands focused, genuine and consistent – you need to know who your target audience is and how to appeal to them. So, why not hold a mirror up to your brand and see what it is you’re really saying? And if you’re falling short, it might be worth heading to the wonderful world of influencers for some creative inspiration!

January has long been known as the time for creating new plans and pushing for change in our personal lives. The same goes for our professional lives, as we set new priorities by embarking on new projects as much as driving forward older ones.

2022 is set to be a unique year in the comms world, as after two years of riding the wave of the pandemic, we are finally starting to see light at the end of what has been at times an incredibly dark tunnel. Although, that light is not the ‘normal’ pace of business as we experienced it pre-2020, nor should it be. We should celebrate the developments that have come out of this difficult period, taking what we have learned from a moment of crisis to put our best foot forward for our campaigns in 2022.

Some things to consider in your comms planning.

Investing in sustainable climate action

As consumers and investors alike increasingly value strong action when it comes to the environment, brands can no longer afford to announce a climate target and call it a day. Businesses are being scrutinised more than ever for their action on climate change and must therefore ensure that their operations are consistent with what is being communicated externally.  

To put it simply, a climate-centric PR campaign will not work unless it’s authentic. However optimistic your external communications, if these are not backed up by a firm commitment which can be measured regularly and fairly, external stakeholders will easily see through the mirage. Today’s consumers and investors are used to seeing companies take misguided, vague climate action, and demand more as a result. Businesses that have little-to-no experience in this area should see this period of mounting pressure as an opportunity to possibly seek expert counsel from consultants, start building a narrative that is relevant to their business and back up their decisions with concrete action.

Navigating the waves of social media regulation

Social media has progressively become a core part of any good communication strategy, but as its use becomes more widespread, so does its regulation. Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s testimony before the US senate in 2021 shed light on the damage that has been caused by the social media giant to its users, leading to legislation such as the Online Safety Bill in the UK being strongly considered by lawmakers.

The bill mandates that social media platforms have a duty of care towards their users in protecting them against potentially damaging content, which is absolutely a step in the right direction when it comes to more responsible social media usage. Companies must ensure that they keep their finger on the pulse when it comes to regulatory changes, as increased legal scrutiny often results in new user guidelines. Businesses not only need to ensure that social media as a communications channel is integrated into their overall communications strategy, but also need to comply with new guidelines.  

Maintaining synergy through employee comms

Hybrid working continues to be favoured by the vast majority of businesses, having taken on board the benefits of a blended model over the past two years. Most companies are putting trust in their employees to choose the approach which works best for them, whether that be coming into the office every day, or on a less regular basis. As a result, teams are often working with a mix of colleagues dialling in virtually, and physically present in the office.

Hybrid working allows staff to fit their work around their lifestyle more than ever before, which can lead to increased productivity and certainly boosts employee wellbeing. But, at the same time, it can naturally lead to a fracturing of teams. Any divide is certainly not the fault of the business, nor the individual staff involved, but rather a natural progression brought on by inconsistent face-to-face contact. But the response is not necessarily to revert to mandated physical working, which is not always possible these days. Companies must instead focus on improving their internal comms strategies, ensuring that messaging is clear, and any change is regularly and effectively communicated to staff. This will be more important than ever in 2022, as hybrid working is solidified as part of our reality, and no longer is acting as a temporary measure implemented during the pandemic.

A New Year is the perfect time to reconsider your comms campaigns and building your brand’s reputation. Want to learn more about how you can shape your greatest asset? Download our guide to reputation management here.

It’s almost time to turn back the clocks and put pumpkins out on our doorsteps as October draws to a close. It’s been a busy month in the tech world, with a balance between the war on social media raging on and some brighter innovations that aim to make our daily lives easier. If you missed anything, here’s our tech news roundup to get you up to speed.

One thing almost nobody missed was that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram experienced an outage that lasted almost six hours. The company blamed an internal technical issue, that on top of affecting the functioning of Facebook’s platforms, resulted in issues with internal employees’ work passes and email. The event provoked questions about our reliance on social media, forcing people around the globe to rethink their relationship with these platforms.

This outage occurred within the context of additional bad press for Facebook as whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before US Congress. She explained that the social media giant has repeatedly prioritised profit over reining in hate speech and misinformation, as its AI systems only catch a tiny minority of offending content.

Nevertheless, numerous social media giants fought back against this mass denunciation. Facebook introduced new measures which attempt to push teens away from harmful content. Similarly, Twitter is testing a warning for users which will appear before they engage with heated conversations on the platform. These may be small steps but represent a move in the right direction to a safer social media world.

In lighter news, October saw a number of innovative developments in the world of tech. Royal Mail has been trialling drone deliveries in Scotland’s Orkney Islands to better connect remote communities. Google Maps is set to show drivers the lowest carbon route for their journeys in a drive towards more environmentally friendly policies. That’s not all for Google, as its experts have also developed an AI-based system to accurately predict if it will rain in the next 90 minutes, which will certainly be useful here in London!

That’s all for our October roundup. Want to receive a daily news roundup of the biggest tech stories? Sign up to our Firewire here.

Summer is around the corner, and much of the goings-on in the tech space gives us that warm and comforting feeling. There’s innovation, there’s growth, there are moves in the right direction which are responding to societal needs. It’s very exciting! Here’s the roundup of the main stories.

The UK tech industry has grown tenfold in the past decade. In fact, London leads in Europe and is picking up the pace on Silicon Valley. British unicorns grew from eight in 2010 to 81 in 2020 – incredible! CityAM has all the stats from the government’s Digital Economy Council and Dealroom on the strength of the British tech industry.

Meanwhile, Google and Instagram have been making moves to improve diversity. Google added a feature to its Google Docs which suggests alternatives to gendered words in a move to help improve inclusivity. The idea is to use non-gendered language to not inadvertently offend colleagues or friends. The Daily Telegraph covers the news. Instagram’s move is slightly different, not removing gender from words, but adding the right gender terminology to profiles. The social network plans to offer users an easier way to specify their gender identity. The pre-approve list of common pronouns includes she, he, they, ze and others. This Guardian article has the details.

In the other corner of social media land you have Twitter, which launched a paid subscription service with some interesting new features. Twitter Blue – the name of the new service – will allow users to undo tweets and better curate tweets through a feature called ‘Collections’. The Independent reports that this service will cost $2.99 per month. Any takers?

Now, this next innovation I am definitely a taker. US researchers have found a way to turn thoughts into text. Just think, you’re on a refreshing lunchtime walk and you have a great idea, you just have to write it out in your head and a ‘brain-computer’ captures the mental handwriting. It involves having a brain implant, the size of an aspirin pill, according to the Daily Mail.

And finally, global vaccinations are going well but there is more to be done, especially to fight misinformation. YouTube, in collaboration with the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, has launched a vaccination ad campaign, primarily targeted at younger people. The campaign is paid for by YouTube and comes after it was criticised for being slow at halting untrue content about Covid-19. BBC News has the full story.

All this positivity really gives us a real spring in our step ahead of summer. This May rain won’t dampen our spirit!

Over two decades ago, my late husband said sign up to ‘Friends Reunited’, you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately, I’d misheard. I went online to Friends United which was a Swingers Club. I wondered if this is really what social networking meant? After a few weeks of awkwardness, we realised the misunderstanding. 

When our PR agency Firefly was born, I could not have imagined the mere existence of social media, let alone the impact it would have. Fast-forward to today and social media is not only dominating the world around us but playing an active role in the comms world too. From the first days of sites like Friends Reunited, social media is now capable of helping people start businesses, helping to drive revenue and humanise brands. But in line with these positives, social media also has a darker side of skewed political influence and spreading misinformation.

Does social media actually have too much power and influence?

Many claim that social media currently holds too much power and influence. Some would argue that social media’s ability to self-regulate elevates this sense of power. Twitter recently started to ban users for hateful content, and some claimed this to be a violation of freedom of expression. As a private body, with its own rules and regulations, Twitter is perfectly within its rights to set conditions within its own ecosystem – but when there are more people on Twitter than living in the US, do social networks need different rules?

Furthermore, does this mean that they have too much power over our ability to speak freely? In short, no. Not only is Twitter’s hateful speech policy in line with the official hateful incidents criteria, but the decision is also legally sound. According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, legal immunity is granted to online platforms protecting them from liability for their users’ posts. This allows them to moderate users’ content without being treated as a publisher.

However, in terms of influence, social media quite clearly dominates. The average person in Europe will spend around 75 minutes a day on social media and lockdown has most likely increased this. With Instagram influencers encouraging people to buy products or services, Facebook allowing misinformation to be published regarding big issues like voting and coronavirus, and the recent emergence of cancel culture, social media is a very powerful and influential place to be right now – and this is both a brilliant and a terrible thing.  

What does this mean for comms?

Whether or not social media has too much power and influence, it is not going away and it’s going to continue to make a huge impact on the world around us, especially within PR and comms. The boom of social media has made comms a much more challenging environment, but it has also opened a world of opportunities, both good and bad. If something catches the attention of the right people on social media, it can spread like wildfire. This is brilliant if you’re trying to promote a campaign, and terrible if one of your spokespeople has commented on a contentious issue and there’s been backlash. The smallest move can amplify or destroy reputations in a matter of minutes, so preparing for all situations is key.

And to put this in context, this primacy is no different to the time when the UK had just four television channels. Advertising on just one channel could easily garner the reach of a huge proportion of the population – the only difference is that social media is global, and unlike television adverts, has relatively little regulation compared to its power.  

On the flip side, getting the attention of audiences is even more difficult. You aren’t just battling with other companies for a share of voice in your market, you are battling with the rest of the world talking about these topics too. This means that content needs to stand out more than ever, it needs to have that competitive edge and needs to be tied into something relevant.

Furthermore, communicating on your client’s ethical and political standings is so important now. Staying silent in troublesome times can be just as damaging as taking risks on making statements. These are the things that really matter, especially to younger generations. Millennials, in particular, believe that businesses should mainly focus on producing high-quality products and improving society. Communicating about company ethics can seem daunting but staying silent can be even more damaging – of course, it is essential to live up to the statements and do something too! In the long run, taking the plunge can also help to build a company’s reputation in line with its purpose. 

Top tips for utilising social media in your comms programme

Social media has undoubtedly gone from a nice-to-have to a business necessity. But it can be both a blessing and a curse for comms programmes, and to ensure you are prepared for both possibilities, here are a few things you can do to make the most of social media.

  • Embrace change and try something new – The world is changing, and you shouldn’t be afraid to change with it. Even if your previous approach to comms was seemingly perfect, staying ahead of the times and capitalising on the power of social media is key to increase reach, stay relevant, and ensure you are always developing.
  • Choose your channel – If you’re targeting consumers, understand your audience demographic and choose your channel carefully. TikTok and Instagram are great for reaching younger audiences, whereas Facebook is better for over 30’s. If you’re looking for professionals, LinkedIn is the network of choice in the UK, with Xing climbing fast in Germany, for example.
  • Always have a crisis plan to fall back on – One word out of place can land you in some pretty hot water, so ensure that you have a crisis plan in place for when situations may go wrong. Part of this will include media training any spokespeople before they begin posting on a social platform.
  • Ensure coverage is shared on social channels – Especially for great hits, social media is a great way to reach more people – and with paid social, you can even target the right kind of audiences, significantly amplifying the impact of the coverage. 

Social media can be scary and right now, it can feel like it has too much power and influence. But not jumping on the trend could be a terrible decision further down the line. Securing a social presence will be key to companies doing well and can work as a tool to increase the reputation of both brands and individuals.

It’s worth mentioning that in researching this piece, I was googling Friends Reunited and also Friends United swingers club, both since closed. However, at that precise moment, having been on my own all day, someone walked in behind me and saw my search for a swingers club. “It was research for a blog post” I pleaded to deaf ears as they stumbled away laughing hysterically. So, the curse of my misunderstanding lives on, 20 years later.  

It seems like a lifetime ago that we saw a wave of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ memes sweeping the UK. However, many of the communications from Boris Johnson and the Queen have had a decidedly wartime tone, so it seems fitting to bring them back into the spotlight again.

During the ‘Great Pause’ we’ve ‘Kept Calm’, and now there are mutterings of ‘A Gradual Return’ which won’t be big and won’t be fast.  The worst thing that you can do is ‘Carry On’ as you were, and pretend that nothing changed.

Because at the risk of sounding like one of the glib ‘experts’, a lot has changed, and perhaps most importantly, people have changed. On the flip side, change is stressful, and people hate uncertainty, so many communications leaders (and I daresay our PM is included in this group) have been struggling to strike a balance between keeping plans flexible and presenting a stable vision of the future.

So how can (and should) you change your plans and recast your thoughts, being mindful of everything that has happened? It would be wrong of me to offer ‘concrete’ answers, because every single person’s experience will be different, and every organisation has adapted in varying degrees – but at the same time, we’re also conscious that during stressful times, it can be hard to see the big picture, so here are some prompts to help you keep your thinking straight.

Planning from the End

Boris Johnson’s announcement on the 10th of May left a lot of room for manoeuvring, especially if the UK sees a ‘second spike’. However, with the news that some of the technology giants will be working from home until Christmas, it’s fair to say that it’ll be at least Q4 before we see a return to anything resembling what we’d usually call normal.

However, this does give us a firm timeline; marketing and communications staff should plan for a linear return to (a new) normal over this period. Of course, there will be spikes and dips – especially if or when we see another outbreak – but you can plan for that too.

And before you think of what to communicate, it’s important to think of who you’re communicating with. To help keep your thoughts in order, here are a few starters for ten.

The Workforce:

Your staff and partners are the single most important group to communicate with, and they will have had a very broad base of experiences during lockdown. From parents caring for children, to new recruits working in small flats, everyone has been managing differently. However, there are a few constants in what they’ll be looking for.

Clarity: Although government guidance may be less than crystal clear, there’s still time – and a need – to give concise, well-reasoned guidance to staff about working patterns, support during work hours, and an anticipated timeline for any changes. With the furlough scheme potentially extended until September, now is the time to plan how to communicate with staff, as well as making sure that non-furloughed employees understand where they stand, and also feel appreciated.

Plan from the end: You also need to plan back from the end of the lockdown; as my colleague Charlotte said in her ‘Communicators dealing with Sudden Change’ Playbook, people might not remember what you did, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Were you inspiring, honest and did you treat them fairly? Or were you indecisive, secretive and sneaky? How will your current communication plans make them feel – and how do you need to plan for this? It’s perfectly acceptable to be firm and fair, but do be realistic: you may need a plan for re-hiring if a number of staff decide to leave, for example.

Customers, Prospects and Partners:

Covid-19 will undoubtedly have affected your customers, whether that’s the general public or other businesses. Unless you’re the likes of Zoom or a hand sanitiser manufacturer, experts like Sir Martin Sorrell have advised that you can’t ‘spend [on advertising] your way out of a recession’. Similarly, a number of pieces of research have suggested that whilst consumers don’t want brands to stop advertising during this time, they do want brands to be more sensitive to their needs – in some cases, switching to advice and wellbeing messages, rather than offers and promotions. With that in mind, it’s important to consider:

New priorities: Many customers will have shifted to what’s truly important – for example, essentials and products that can be used at home, like family technology, loungewear and indoor sports equipment. It’s important to remember that this won’t last forever, but making it easy for customers to find what they need will absolutely be remembered post-Covid.

Content consumption: Customers may well have changed how they consume content – for example, not many of us are commuting past billboards anymore! At the same time, with general stress levels higher than before, it’s important to be concise, clear, and unless it’s constructive and necessary, not present overly negative views – we’ve all heard them on the news and social channels!

Reassurance: Many customers, prospects and investors will also want to know that if they’re buying from you – whether it’s products or shares – that you’re a stable provider. What has Covid-19 done to your 3-year plan, for example? Does your company roadmap still feature the key products and services that you promised last year? Is your company financially stable, and what are your ambitions? Staff may be blindsided by these questions during sales or marketing meetings, so it’s important to be prepared for them.

Where do we go now?

Coronavirus has meant a significant rethinking of business plans and processes, but now that a phased return to ‘normal’ is in sight, it’s time for you to keep calm and to get back to planning, working out what your phased return to normal will look like.

And whatever you do, remember our two principles of good communications during Covid-19 – be kind, and remove uncertainty where you can. If your communication ticks these two boxes, you’re safe to proceed, but if not, it might just need a fresh pair of eyes or (better yet) a fresh brain.

We have a wealth of assets that can help you set out your communications plan, whatever the audience. So regardless of the audience and the changes you’ve been through, we’ve got you covered – and if you’d like to discuss further how you can keep calm and carry on (differently) please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us on hello@fireflycomms.com.

What are the most annoying elements of social media? Trolling, definitely. Boast posts, absolutely. How about when you see a post – perhaps a video or a recipe – that you want to look at again later, but then you can’t find it again when you want or need it? Infuriating!

A new app has been released that lets you save content from all major social channels in one place, to look at again whenever you want. Videos, GIFs, memes, music files, notes – you can collate them all on Figgle. It’s like a digital pinboard for your favourite content – so no more trawling through your social feeds searching for that content you wanted to forward to colleagues or friends.

The app is available on all iPhones free of charge – check it out here.

National Cupcake Day, National Chocolate Mousse Day, National Fish & Chips Day… yes, these are all real things and the list goes on – there’s a ‘national day’ for anything and everything.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love any excuse for chowing down on a cupcake, but when it comes to using these to promote your brand, maybe we shouldn’t always be so keen to get stuck in.

No doubt you will have seen the flurry of social and media activity around International Women’s Day a couple of weeks ago – you may well have been getting involved yourself. Not to raise a whole other debate (you can read some further Firefly thoughts on the concept of the day here), there was also something else that jumped out at me. Namely, a journalist’s plea to stop bombarding them with irrelevant and rather shameless pitches. Certainly, there’s been quite a bit of backlash over the major commodification of International Women’s Day this year.

It made me take a big step back and think. Yes, being on top of the news agenda and the big issues of the day is important for staying current and in the public eye but in this increasingly saturated commercial landscape, just like the growing number of ‘national days’, are brands also starting to simply jump on anything and everything? Is the desperate bid to be relevant doing more damage to brands than good? It may just be the quick win you need to push your name back out there but like that quick, cheap burger, it may not keep you satisfied for long and you could end up feeling worse, not better.

 

Don’t always listen to your gut

You will (hopefully) know your business and marketing goals, company values and messaging inside out and should know where your sweet spots lie – the events that you should be participating in, the different channels you should be using and more importantly, the content you share, from your company blog to your media releases. While it can be good to push the boat out a little, don’t let the draw of something seemingly tantalising and tasty allow you to get carried away.

This is particularly important when it’s a sensitive subject, like gender equality. You know there could be some risks involved – don’t ignore that. Take a minute to reflect on the wider issue. How could that ad or that comment potentially be misconstrued, for example? Brewdog’s ‘pink’ IPA for International Women’s Day was meant to be ironic but many did not catch on. Remember, it’s hard to show sarcasm in an ad. And when it comes to hashtags, please, really do think them through. Is that trending hashtag you’re jumping on conveying the message you think it is? Even if it’s associated with an official event, members of the public can take it in a whole other direction. McDonalds found this out the hard way with #McDStories.

It’s also a question of timing. When you decide to launch that campaign, promote that particular ad or share that article, don’t forget the importance of context. On the backdrop of current situations or events, could something seemingly harmful also be poor taste? Take Airbnb’s “floating world” marketing email. A great concept (and the floating house on the Thames was well received) but in the US, the email was sent in the wake of Hurricane Harvey – not so good. Of course, you can’t predict what will happen, but be ready to pull something if it does.

Be picky with your food

Even when you’ve assessed and decided that this is something you can get involved in, it still doesn’t mean that you should. It’s not only a matter of whether this aligns with your brand and what you wish your brand to be associated with. It is so painfully obvious when someone is piping up on an issue simply as a means of self-promotion whilst not adding any value.

Ask yourself: Can I actually contribute something valuable to this conversation? Am I just making some of my products pink for International Women’s Day or just repeating what others have already said?

You want to be taking the conversation to a new level, leading it in a new direction, not letting it continue around in a circle. It’s those brands that actually offer something new or say something different that will stand out in the crowd.

Put meat on the bones

Most importantly, if you do pipe up about an important issue, can you actually back up what you’re claiming? Social purpose is the new marketing buzzword and it’s now universally recognised by many brands that this is the way to differentiate oneself from others – showing that your brand not only has a function or looks great but is also helping the world to be a better place. As we’ve seen already this can also go very wrong. You do not want to be the next Pepsi.

If you’re getting involved in the debate over the gender pay gap, discrediting other companies for not addressing the issue and offering advice to tackle this problem, make sure you know where your own company stands first. Finding out that you’re no better will do irreparable damage.

Whilst best to have thought through your campaign, brands can be more easily forgiven if they are indeed staying true to your word and promises. Starbucks’ initiative for Race Together did not go down well, stopped just months after its launch, but Starbucks still followed through with promises to hire 10,000 disadvantaged young people. If you say you’re going to do something to help, do it!

Of course, don’t be put off entirely. Oreo and the Super Bowl blackout is a great example of a super quick, simple and effective issues hijack. Just next time when there’s a breaking news topic or a big national day, think before you tuck in. Bon appetit!

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?

The toll of the influen-cycle

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.

The ethics of influencer PR

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.

How can we do better?

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:

  1. Both codes have clear sections on acting honestly and not knowingly disseminating false or misleading information. For influencer work, you need to seek out a truly authentic person who actually would use your product (if they aren’t already), were they not being paid for the opportunity. While some influencers might take any or many opportunities to keep up their clout and income, if it’s not something true to their actual selves, it may only alienate them more from their reality.
  2. The codes also say PR people should conduct professional activities with proper regard to public interest. This is really a catch all for ‘don’t take the mick’, but it’s a good one. Controlling the message while also subtly inserting the brand into influencer work is important in PR, but you also have to be transparent. Make more use of content like video, where the influencer can speak honestly about the brand, perhaps by testing a product or giving a demo of how the service works as they go through the process. This is more authentic and more trustworthy for consumers and they’ll also gain a better understanding of what the brand does. At the same time, your influencer doesn’t become a robot reeling out approved copy for the sake of the sponsorship – they can be true to themselves.
  3. Most of all, trust your gut. If deep down the partnership or the content being produced for it feels too commercial or just not ‘right’, don’t do it. It probably means there’s something wrong and you aren’t actually hitting the sweet spot or keeping the best interests of the influencer 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.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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