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How do you solve a problem like... online abuse towards influencers during Pride?

Where does a brand’s duty of care to influencer partners begin and end?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

It’s no secret that advertisers are eager to show their friendliness towards the LGBT+ community during Pride month. With the authenticity of any marketing activation under scrutiny from audiences, many brand marketers have turned to social media influencers as a way of reaching consumers.

But boosting a personality with the star-making power of a brand campaign can mean exposing influencer partners to a wider – and potentially hostile – audience, leaving them more vulnerable to hate speech and abuse. How can brands protect the influencers they work with – and how far does that responsibility extend?

How do you solve a problem like... online abuse towards influencers during Pride?

Akeil Onwukwe-Adamson, account manager, Seen Connects

To be queer is to pre-empt abuse, so being an influencer takes guts – it opens you up to a new arena of mistreatment. When working with influencers, there is no real way to prevent trolls or online hate. The best we can do is work with talent to authentically tell stories that they are proud of, aiding them to feel comfortable with sharing a part of themselves – something that they are ready to fight for. We make sure we build relationships with our network, giving us the opportunity to be there pre, during, and post content going live.

Tamara Littleton, chief executive officer, The Social Element

Facing abuse for posting about love and inclusivity should never happen. When it’s towards your brand ambassador, it absolutely falls under the brand’s duty of care.

Brands working with influencers on ‘cause’ messaging should be giving them access to their social media teams for help, advice on handling trolls and resources for coping with stress. Brands should also be vocally supportive on their own social media channels, showing that the brand is standing with the influencer.

Pride is about supporting LGBT+ people and their allies – I hope that every business is generous with who they apply that to.

Stephanie Hubbard, senior content consultant, Brilliant Noise

This is super simple: ask them. One person might want you to wade in, some might be quite happy to handle it themselves, and some would prefer to ignore those trolls completely. So during the campaign creative development process, ask them if and how they’d like your help if they receive abuse, listen, and then make sure you follow through with what they ask of you.

Matt Rhodes, head of brand engagement strategy, Engine Creative

The duty of care starts with strategy. An influencer’s audience will react quickly if a brand partnership feels counter to their values. An agency has failed strategically if it pairs an influencer and brand in this way, not just because of risks to the influencer but because they were wrong for the brand in the first place. But this duty of care also means speaking the truth to clients. Promoting a rainbow-clad product to profit from the LGBT+ community, while not supporting that community, is wrong for any influencer. And agencies need to tell clients that.

Eve Lee, founder, Digital Fairy

Allyship is about being proactive. Brands should be prepared to work in non-traditional ways throughout the entire process, giving talent protection, transparency and agency. Too often influencers get caught up in problematic campaigns. Sales KPIs can be stated upfront to reassure the intention is on amplifying voices, not profit.

Partners should have control over their narrative through creative licence. If brands have an unapologetic and evergreen commitment to the cause, it should foster a much safer space. Actions also include making pronouns clear on everything from call sheets to captions to avoid misgendering; sharing a prepared company statement against trolling; and blocking and reporting any problematic comments or turning them off completely.

Johnson Ong, co-founder and director, BZNZ

Influencers are some of the hardiest people I know, and many even embrace controversy and haters. Some choose to turn such situations into a valuable opportunity to educate about the LGBT+ community. Agencies should approach each online abuse situation with care and decide on an appropriate response with their influencer partner.

Rana Reeves, founder and chief executive officer, RanaVerse

At our queer-owned agency, which regularly mounts LGBT+ campaigns, we have a ‘do no harm’ policy designed to uphold respect as well as safeguard – as best we can – all of our partners, including influencers. If a partner isn’t regularly in the public eye, we’re transparent about channels and content scale, while respecting their preferences about public tagging. This policy also applies to more visible influencers who regularly post LGBT+ content, and we ensure everyone receives a fair fee; however, we must accept the unfortunate reality that our partners face hate and discrimination everyday, regardless of campaign participation.

Claire Morris, head of influencer marketing, Publicis Media

Brands and their agencies are responsible for ensuring they have the credibility to align themselves with said values before commissioning talent. Brands are also responsible for having an honest conversation with potential talent to ensure they also have the authority to talk about a certain topic. Even when this due diligence has taken place, there are still some instances when talent receives abuse, and if this happens the brand is obliged to address it at both a personal and public level.

Katie Hunter, social and influencer lead, Karmarama, part of Accenture Interactive

As an agency, it’s crucial to make sure that, firstly, we are doing our due diligence with our influencer selection and not working with anyone who would be putting themselves (or a brand) in the potential firing line. Secondly, a collaborative working model and watertight approvals process for making the work will give that influencer genuine input and feedback to help identify potential flags from both sides – as well as more opportunities to make something truly brilliant. They know their followers better than we do.

Skylar Jackson, vice-president of content strategy, Digitas Health

Protecting influencers is about being allies to their cause and community, not just during Pride Month, but year-round. A brand’s sudden shift to a rainbow logo or engagement with an LGBT+ influencer only during June can trigger backlash from all sides. Consumers see through brand attempts to rainbow-wash and regard it as an inauthentic effort at targeting rather than a demonstration of allyship. These influencers tend to bear the brunt of that negativity. To protect them, focus on being authentic to your brand and its support of Pride, and engage influencers who are true to themselves all year long.

Julia Caldas, senior data strategist, Waste

As a queer adlander myself, I cringe at corporate, virtue-signalling Pride content. The brands who are doing it right, however, partner with the right influencers and produce honest, genuine content – the kind that sadly attracts the most negative attention.

Brands need to be true partners with their influencers, ready to provide them with community management support through their social profiles, being intolerant to attacks by replying to toxic comments, and acknowledging and thanking positive reactions. Brands should also provide mental wellbeing support during and after the project. Our client Riot Games offers free mental health resources for content creators and influencers – exactly the kind of thing other brands should be doing.

Carina White, senior partnerships and talent manager, Rapp

Brands should have an open dialogue with talent before their content goes live to reassure them that online abuse will not be tolerated and they will be fully supported should it arise. Where possible, brands should reply to negative comments on their social pages.

A great example of this is from a podcast I work on that recently launched a partnership with Dove. They received numerous abusive comments about why hair discrimination towards Black people didn’t exist. The social team at Dove replied to every negative comment with stats and figures around hair discrimination and sought to educate and inform. Brands should also inform their talent of the features social media platforms have in place to prevent them seeing offensive comments and messages.

Harriet Valentine, paid media executive, Space & Time

Rather than hiding from negativity, sadly an issue facing many influencers, partners can provide support by acknowledging it as part of discourse, and letting it shape campaign efforts. This can be followed up by working with influencers to amplify queer and marginalized voices beyond Pride Month. It is also important we address online abuse with established procedures to protect the influencer, from regularly monitoring privacy controls across channels to keeping our finger on the pulse with social listening tools and offering guidance in keyword exclusion, blocking, muting or unfollowing accounts.

Each week, I pick a new topic for discussion. If you feel like sharing your thoughts, email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.

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