Opinion: The murky practice of influencer marketing

Credit: iStock/Nadia Bormotova

How sponsored partnerships are replacing authentic endorsements

In public relations, we have always ascribed to the power of so-called earned coverage and endorsements. Unlike advertising, PR can give the public opinions and information from media and online influencers that is not paid for and therefore comes with a higher level of trust and reliability.

Traditionally, PR works with influencers by carefully selecting popular individuals who fit and would naturally like and use the client’s product or service. We may then send them a sample with information or invite them to an event where they can experience more and meet the creators.

This is the authentic PR model for involving an influencer and hoping they will love the product, service and experience we have provided them and will therefore feel inspired to share it with their online communities. It’s never guaranteed, and we don’t have control over whether the influencer will share, but that makes the value of authentic endorsement even more valuable and our jobs as PR pros as challenging as ever.

Enter the digital influencer 2.0. We’re now seeing online influencers promoting products for substantial fees, and our Instagram feeds are filled with our favourite lifestyle personalities praising the latest shampoos and vitamins—for a price.

While we used to watch influencers’ clothes and the products they used as an indication of what’s hot and what works, now we question the authenticity of the pay-to-play model. A recent Wired magazine article details the lucrative war to influence your Instagram feed and how some online influencers are making thousands of dollars for one post promoting a product.

But there is a problem in the PR world as agencies conform to this paid model. Have we forgotten what PR stands for and how we differ from advertisers? When our online feeds become dominated by sponsored content, are we losing touch with the public, who are craving authentic content and connection?

In November, the Influencer Marketing 2020 report, published by Influencer Intelligence in association with Econsultancy, found that millennials prefer authentic and transparent content. The report notes that 90 percent of industry respondents say brands need to take these values more seriously.

For PR pros, what does this mean for how we develop relationships and strategies with online influencers? Paid partnerships need to be disclosed clearly, but that may not be enough. As we continue to participate in sponsored influencer content, we risk losing the authentic and trusted influence we’re trying to develop through PR efforts. Should PR leave the sponsored content to advertisers and other marketers and continue to work on earned endorsements for our clients’ ideas and products?

Seeing a popular influencer post about a product they love, without being paid to do so, certainly seems more credible and aligns properly with the PR model. The online influencer can still make a good living through sponsored content, but as PR pros, perhaps we need to go back to the basic value of what we do and how we create authentic connections and profile, and leave the advertising to our marketing colleagues. Otherwise, we may risk losing our identity and value as public relations leaders.

Rachel Thexton is principal of Vancouver-based Thexton Public Relations