Vox Pop: are influencers too successful for scandal to damage their business?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Vlogger PewDiePie’s most recent misconduct has hit the headlines after he used a racial profanity, yet an apology video seems to have been enough to satisfy his fanbase.

It appears that his subscribers' loyalty results in their defense of his actions. They watch his life on YouTube and follow his interests on social media, so does this mean they have a more entitlement to judge his sincerity than the people reading the scandal in the news?

The Drum Network asked its members the following question: "Do scandalous actions damage an influencer's business or do you think the exposure they provide products overrides the bad press?"

Here's what they had to say:

Pete Campbell, CEO and founder, Kaizen

Influencers' selling point isn't adding their reputation to the company or being able to write on your site that you're endorsed by them. That's backwards thinking. The value of an influencer is them providing their fans with a positive (and more importantly, loud) view of your business.

As a result, you're not taking their bad press on by letting them share their enthusiasm about your product – the bad press will stay with them, while their fans will still take notice of the influencer's opinions. PewDiePie's a top-tier influencer even after this controversy – and that's not going to change.

Elaine Joyce, copywriter, Rothco

Exposure is the key benefit of using influencers but I wouldn’t say exposure overrides bad press. In a world where opinion is so easily shared online, all press is certainly not good press. Being associated with an influencer who says things that you don’t stand for can of course damage a brand. You are the company you keep.

Influencers should be chosen because they share similar values to the brand to minimise this risk. However, a worst-case scenario gives brands a chance to call out what they do stand for, to speak up and be heard.

Michaela MacIntyre, Business Director, Gravity Thinking

Influencers need to start being a bit more professional and seriously considering their behaviour on and offline if they want to work with brands regularly. It’s why so many brands are now integrating morality clauses in influencer contracts, and rightly so. The key, however, is to get the balance right – you’re working with them for their authenticity and the deep connection they have built with their audience.

While racial slurs and such are clearly inappropriate (and obviously brands don’t want that negative association), we can’t get to a place where influencers are self regulating so heavily they become bland and lose traction with their audiences or just become a mouthpiece for advertisers.

Chris McGhee, head of communications, Caliber

Without a doubt, this latest incident will impact PewDiePie's brand. But the real question is, for how long?

Influencer marketing is relatively new but celebrity ambassadors and their scandals are not (remember when Kate Moss and Tiger Woods had endorsements cut following bad press?) Influencers are now held to account in the same way, and rightly so.

With that said, brands are hungry to reach digital communities and boasting 57 million subscribers on YouTube, this won't be the end of PewDiePie’s endorsement career but his continued controversy will make marketers think twice before signing on the dotted line.

Emily Bray, account manager, JJ

In the Drum’s last Vox Pop on influencers, I explained that giving an influencer creative freedom secures their authenticity with their audience, and therefore a brand should give them control. And, I have to admit, not much has changed.

It’s still important to give an influencer creative freedom in order to maintain authenticity but there has always been an underlying risk. Disney cut its ties with PewDiePie, which illustrates the impact an influencer going rogue can have on your brand as you are pulled in by association.

As an influencer you have a great level of responsibility, both to your fans and your sponsors, but it’s the brand’s responsibility to nurture the relationship.

Phoebe Dixon, PR and social campaign manager, Stickyeyes

Influencers are now celebrities in their own right and PewDiePie’s level of influence doesn’t show signs of waning. As the gossip mills continue to turn, it’s a case of ‘yesterday’s news’, just as it seems to be with any other celebrity. Take Chris Brown’s domestic abuse or Kate Moss’ drug scandal – it may have temporarily damaged income and partnerships but long term, it’s just a blip on the radar. This isn’t a first for PewDiePie and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not the last; as long as follower numbers continue to grow organically, there’s still value to offer brands.

Lara Groves, lead creative, Impero

Forget his position as an influencer – PewDiePie has damaged his business of being a human being.

Every one of us in positions of socio-economic privilege (and as a white male, PewDiePie is fortunate to find himself in the uppermost tier) have a duty, not only to condemn prejudice in all its forms, but to make active efforts to counteract prejudice in the societies that, comparatively, treat us so well. If we don't, then we are silently complicit in the ongoing, utterly unjustifiable social bias – which simply isn't good enough.

As an influencer, if PewDiePie's actions weren't so ill-educated, they'd almost be laughable. At a time when brands are switching to cause-based advertising to engage younger consumers, PewDiePie's mindless actions stand to have the opposite effect. Surely no brand trying to target young, socially-aware audiences wants to be associated with that? And if they do, it says an awful lot about their standpoint on the privilege thing.

Not-so-great publicity for your own brand, hey PewDiePie? You f*ckin' nitwit.

Kris Boorman, digital marketing executive, Sagittarius

Google’s survey results claim that people see YouTubers as friends, not just a celebrity they watch. As we’ve seen with personal development planning, a very large percentage of fans will idolise and defend their choice of YouTuber beyond what’s normally seen with celebrity fandom – boycotting any brand or other notable content creator that speaks out against them.

From what I’ve seen, these vendettas are very short-lived and burn out quickly. Better for brands to err on the side of caution and publicly denounce scandals like this. The good grace will be noted by the public, and forgotten by the fans.

Andy Way, head of content and engagement, Greenlight Digital

An individual making unpleasant, scandalous comments but with a huge, rabidly loyal core fanbase who’ll apparently forgive them anything; remind you of anyone? Donald Trump is the ultimate social media influencer. He retains support regardless of what he says or does. But it does negatively affect how the rest of the world sees him. Am I surprised that PewDiePie is still around? No.

Businesses don’t survive on a core customer base alone, they need to reach beyond that to the casual audience. In the long-run, this behaviour will damage PewDiePie. And we can only hope the same is true of Trump.

Eddie May, managing director, The Playbook

It depends on the type of influencer and the type of brand that is attracted to working with them.

For any brand, endorsement from a third party can be incredibly powerful, but it always comes with a certain amount of risk. Some will be happy to take that chance and ride out any potential negative stories, in exchange for the reach and fame it can provide. Others would want to steer well clear of any whiff of controversy.

The same principle applies to working with influencers as it does to old-fashioned celebrity or sportsperson endorsements: brands need to do their homework to make sure the ‘fit’ is right in terms of audience but also values and behaviours.

Ian McKee, social and PR director, AgencyUK

The PewDiePie case is a pretty cut and dried example of how influencers’ bad behaviour can impact their business. The racist moron had a network deal with Disney dropped and was cut from YouTube’s preferred advertising network earlier this year as a result of his anti-Semitic ‘joke’.

This instance, on the other hand, isn’t even a joke. It was just a racist utterance which in his ‘apology’ he’s explained away as being “extremely immature and stupid”, and having “just sort of slipped out.” It’s far more than just immature or stupid, it’s hateful, and if that kind of language is near the surface of your mind enough to slip out, you don’t deserve to have a profile. His audience may have forgiven him, but thankfully the brands who work with him don’t have to.

Sophie Beckley, planner, Connect

When brands decide to collaborate with influencers, they are inexorably taking a level of risk. Anatole France famously said “It is human nature to think wisely and act foolishly,” and this reigns supreme. PewDiePie isn’t the first influencer to deliver scandal and nor will he be the last. He’s a human after all and it is human nature to be unpredictable.

Brands need to have insight at the heart plus (as boring as it sounds) risk management. Understanding the ecosystem that the influencer is immersed within and the influencer/brand match will be vital to creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

Steve Wilkins, head of content strategy, BWP Group

The key to any influencer maintaining their following and the trust of their audience will be their authenticity and the ability to handle the negative press by showing remorse for their actions. One thing all these people have in common is that they are human beings who will inevitably make mistakes.

It really doesn’t matter what exposure they provide brands and products, because if they can’t show remorse and authenticity when things go south then there will be an inevitable knock-on effect to the types of brands that they can do business with in the long run.

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Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis works with Drum Network members to create stimulating online content and grow their agencies.

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