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Influencer relations: the latest war between marketing and public relations

By Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer

October 7, 2016 | 4 min read

The battle lines are being drawn for the ownership of influencer relations as both marketing and public relations set out their strategies.


20 years ago blogging platforms such as Blogger, Typepad and WordPress enabled anyone to publish their own content to the internet. Blogger and Typepad fell by the wayside but WordPress remains strong.

Blogging disrupted the mainstream publishing business, and enabled anybody with a web browser and an internet connection to share content. This allowed rich, diverse and extraordinary niches to emerge and share knowledge and learn.

Communities around craft, food, health, parenting, sport and technology continue to thrive. I owe my career to blogging about marketing and public relations. It's truly a form of social media.

The late nineties and early naughties saw the emergence of new media such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, alongside independent bloggers. Traditional media struggled to keep up.

The legacy of mainstream business models, infrastructure and one size fits all supply chain has hampered progress. National and regional media has particularly struggled.

We’re all influencers now

Today journalists have been joined by a new breed of influencers. These individuals have built an audience by creating and sharing content via the internet. It's no longer just about blogging.

Each new form of media from Snapchat to YouTube, and Instagram to Twitter, has given rise to a new breed of influencer.

Media relations, a core area of public relations practice, has shifted from pitching traditional media to working with influencers across all forms of new media.

Whether they are opinion leaders, experts, ambassadors, creators, celebrities, activists or healthcare professionals, the goal remains the same. Influencers, like journalists, provide a means of building trust with specific communities through third party storytelling.

Earning attention

It's a challenging area for public relations because effective influencer relations requires a thorough understanding of networks. A third party tool market has emerged to help practitioners to grips with the identification of influencers in a community. And there's also an ethical dimension.

As an influencer in the marketing, media and public relations sector I work on the same basis as a journalist. If I'm pitched something interesting that I think will work for my community, I'll write about it, or accept a guest post.

As far as I'm aware other people writing in my space work in the same way. But not so other sectors.

Paying to play: reach vs relationships

The last five years have seen the emergence of paid influencers and creators. The biggest opportunity is typically for visual content such as Instagram and YouTube in consumer markets.

Media regulators such as the Competition & Markets Authority have the business of influencer marketing firmly within their sights, demanding clear disclosure for any paid activity. This shift has put the public relations business on a collision course with marketing.

Marketing vs public relations

Public relations seeks to negotiate with influencers and build long term relationships, whereas marketing wants to buy access to audiences at scale in the same way you'd buy media space.

Public relations is my trade so it won't surprise you that whether earned or paid, I think influencers are fundamentally a relationship play. But the battle over who should lead influencer relations is definitely on and everyone is increasing their capability.

My own business, Ketchum has invested in a worldwide training program to ensure every employee is versed in paid, owned and hybrid influencer relations. We’ve gone all in on research and analytics, building a planning and measurement framework, and partnering with leading tool vendors.

The race is on between marketing and public relations and within three to five years the fight for ownership of influencers will be won or lost. Public relations will win by demonstrating the long term value of relationships to brands, over immediate reach.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

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