Home Opinion Will the rise of influencers lead to PR death?

Will the rise of influencers lead to PR death?

18 min read


I was at a conference for public relations professionals recently. It was well-attended by practitioners from different countries, mostly from Africa. We discussed issues about the future of the profession and practice. During the conversation that followed a presentation on influencer marketing, a delegate implied that social media influencers are a threat to PR practice. In other words, they are coming to displace PR practitioner!

For a moment, I wanted to make a counter submission, but the circumspect part of me chose restraint. I decided to put pen to paper. In any case, I’m likely to better articulate my thoughts and even refine them on paper. Are social media influencers truly on a march to displace the PR practitioner? This is the question I have attempted to answer in this piece.

The PR practitioner feeling threatened by other professions or new practices is not a recent phenomenon. There has been an ongoing rivalry between the journalist, who is a media creator, and the PR practitioner. The interesting thing is that for some journalists, PR is the practice they transition into after many years in journalism. It is perhaps the more attractive brother. The PR practitioner without a journalism background may not be comfortable with this transmutation, but here is a reality that cannot be ignored: many successful PR practitioners have a background in journalism or had a stint in journalism. The reason is simple: PR heavily relies on the media and the practitioners, the creators.

Despite this unfussy animosity between the journalist and the PR practitioner, they have co-existed for many years. The journalist knows that the PR practitioner needs them, and they also need the PR practitioner. It is a marriage made on earth for the benefits of the intended audience. Their interests may be at cross purposes intermittently, but the permanent interest to work together is understood by both parties.

Social media as a form of media

The job of a PR practitioner, operationally, is always about communicating an idea or a message to the identified publics, which is done through an intermediary – the media. The media used to comprise print and electronics. The media later expanded to include online outlets with blogs and online news platforms, and social media with varying expressions. There is an explosion of social media platforms creating more options for the users. More people seem to have a playlist of social media these days. There are individuals who spend most of their social media time on Twitter, make a quick stop on Instagram and back to Twitter. Others combine LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook; or Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok. The combination varies for different users.

Social media has significantly democratised information consumption and dissemination. It is a space for young and old across continents. Gone are the days when it was associated with only digital natives. Now, old people from old people’s home create content on TikTok. It is a public sphere with an umpire whose main responsibility is less of a censor and more of a police officer. An instructive dimension to this phenomenon is that the expression “social media” inadvertently connotes that a user is either a media personality, media consumer or both. And this is not a new phenomenon.

Every media platform has the capacity to serve two purposes: it can be a medium for consumption of information, and dissemination or expression of ideas. Whilst the listeners that tune into a radio station for the most part only listen and consume information disseminated, others are in the studio to express their ideas and thoughts. Same goes for TV and print media. The ability of the audience to express their thoughts may be limited by the medium. In the past, audience could mainly call into a radio programme to express their ideas, same with TV, whilst the newspaper will avail readers with the opportunity to anchor op-eds and letters to editors. There are individuals that have become popular because they constantly call in on radio programmes. They are as popular as the On-Air-Personalities anchoring the programmes. Perhaps, if this category of people had early access to a more reachable, handy, standardized and easy to use media platform, they would have been a different kind of media creators too.

On the contrary, social media has simplified the opportunity for an individual to be both a user and creator. A user can consume a piece of content on social media and immediately react. Daniel Regha became popular on Twitter simply by commenting on other user’s posts. His followership base grew out of this. In essence, the ability of an individual to create media content has been simplified. Just as there are many OAPs, a few have become more popular because of their prowess, consistency or relatability.

There are reporters and columnists that have become opinion shapers simply by the quality they bring to their craft and other factors. In the same manner, some social media users and creators are creating a niche for themselves with the content they create. Their approach to content creation make them stand out. As a result, they have become more popular. The logic is simple: every spectacle will attract spectators. If you can retain your spectators long enough, they will become followers for as long you give them the spectacle. The uses and gratification theory explains this cycle.

Anyone with followers wields a level of influence. The pastor wields influence over their members. The teacher wields influence over the students/pupils (You can talk to parents with children in nursery and primary schools. They will tell you how they struggle to convince their wards against whatever their teachers have told them in school). Many social media creators have become influential because of the spectacle (content) they create, and the spectators that have been converted to followers. It is nothing new, it is the same reality with print and other media platforms creators who wield a degree of influence over the consumers of their content. There are motorists that have certain radio programmes they listen to on their way to work every morning and they accept what the OAPs say as facts, perhaps because of the credibility the OAPs have built over the years.

The foregoing shows that the social media influencer is more of a media practitioner than a PR practitioner. The comparison of the journalist and social media influencer is mainly from the perspective of content creation, and the need for the PR practitioner to engage the influencer as a media creator rather than a competitor. I am not in any way suggesting that the protocols of journalism and social media influencing are the same. Yes, some social media influencers may wake up one day and think they can do what the PR practitioner does.

It is not a new phenomenon; journalists are daily transitioning into PR practice because in many instances they limit PR to media relations and press releases. In the same manner, some influencers may think they can do the job of a PR practitioner because they have restricted the job to influencer management. Perhaps they will do a great job managing fellow influencers just as the journalist might do well as a media relations advisor because of their journalism background. By the way, there’s no crime in having practitioners from other backgrounds in PR practice. I believe that having practitioners from diverse backgrounds will elevate the practice and add to the value the sector brings to the business world. For instance, a mathematician and statistician in PR could add considerable value to PR measurement. The critical element is the ability of every entrant to respect the existing protocols and embrace a learning mindset. Know the protocols before you attempt to disrupt them.

Social media influencers as collaborators

What separates the true PR practitioner is a grasp of the protocols and standards that undergird the practice. PR is an art undergirded by a science, which informs the PR strategy. For instance, in a crisis, whilst momentary silence would be a tactical expression of a strategy for the PR practitioner, a PR wannabe would rush to put out a “our attention has been drawn to” statement for every developing issue. Of course, to the butcher, every animal is a meat that must be sliced. Whereas, a press release is a means to an end to the true practitioner, it is the end for the wannabe.

In conclusion, the PR practitioners should not see social media influencers as competitors but collaborators. Journalists have remained collaborators despite the agelong posturing as PR practitioners by some of them. Interestingly, whilst the PR practitioners will be contracted to run a political campaign, an average political office-holder will employ a journalist as their imagemaker. For as long as I can remember, no president in Nigeria has deviated from this practice. They will always pick an editor as their imagemaker. In other words, the journalists have been taking our jobs! Maybe that’s why Nigerian presidents rarely leave office with admirable public perception. Topic for another day.

A passenger may believe they can wield the steering and drive better than the driver just because holding the steering seems like the only thing the driver does. They do not know that there’s a lot of mental gymnastics that is not seen in driving. It is okay for social media influencers to assume they can do the job of a PR practitioner. There are two possibilities: they end up as great PR professionals and contribute to the practice, or they remain wannabes isolated by the true practitioners.

Here is a call to the PR practitioner: let the social media influencers breathe, let them be, and work with them if you must just as you work with the journalist. They are not coming for your job; they are only creating content for their followers in the same manner the journalist writes for his readers.

By the way, nothing stops anyone from becoming a social media influencer too. Do am if e easy!

Goodluck is a corporate communications professional with interest in the broad spectrum of media and communication

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