The pay-for-play problem in PR - let's talk influencer programmes

A few weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to a webinar titled: “What’s Wrong with Your Influencer Program?” It made me think about the question asked in the title and try to address it here. The answer isn’t simple, so to fully understand what’s wrong with influencer programs it’s important to look at how and why they have become so prominent… and it’s not because they work.

The Integrated Model

Beginning in 2010, as digital channels became more prominent, PR firms slowly started to abandon their roots in earned media and tried to grow into a new type of agency, something that encompassed all facets of marketing and communications. This transformation was done in the interests of being “integrated” and was meant to free PR firms from the traditional swim lanes set by their clients’ organizations so they could connect with audience wherever they are. The shift also created a new emphasis on a spectrum of channels that go beyond their traditional space of earned, and now includes paid, owned, earned, shared, social, and experiential.

In the several years since the change took effect, many PR firms have de-emphasized what was traditionally their core offering, media relations, because they perceive their role in the marketing mix to be far beyond traditional PR. They seek out work that normally sits within marketing at a large company and is executed by advertising agencies. It’s now become difficult to find someone at a large PR firm who knows how to place media, while there is a plethora of experts in managing influencer-marketing software, VR, creative directors, digital analytics, SEO, brand planning, and media buying. For all the positives this shift has on these firms’ bottom line, it’s also created its share of challenges.

Large companies are siloed by their nature, especially in the areas of marketing and communications. The new perceived role of a PR firm has caused conflicts in the agency mix and has forced procurement and vendor relations managers in client organizations to create stricter swim lanes. It also has diminished many PR firms’ ability to help their traditional corporate communications clients meet their goals. Despite the shift in agency priorities, their clients’ roles and criteria for success have not changed. Earned media and headlines remain paramount for a client-side communications professional. In response, since the traditional capabilities have declined, PR firms position and sell many of the new services as alternative ways to reach the media.

My New View from the Client-Side

A few months ago, I left the agency world and accepted an in-house corporate communications role. Like my peers in other companies, the most important outcome of my work is building my company’s brand through a steady stream of positive mentions in the media. This runs counter to many of the products that I sold at a PR firm. Free from agency-life and revenue targets, I am finally no longer forced to internalize my objections and confusion about the many new advertising-like tactics that PR firms consider a core offering. This is never more evident than with influencer marketing and native content. They are often positioned as turnkey substitutes for traditional PR output and are sold in a way that shows little understanding of where they fit into a true marketing mix.

Despite what PR firms tell their clients, the value of influencers can’t be exploited with the latest software platform, nor can they be traded like a stock. Bloggers with large Twitter followings who regularly receive copious amounts of retweets and likes incorrectly get labeled as influential because they are easy to identify. Their reach and engagement are sold as influence without any validation. Real influencers have a constituency and impact behavior; clicks or likes do not equal a change in perception or indicate any action taken. Their influence is built on a foundation of integrity and trust that would quickly diminish if they sold their endorsement to the highest bidder through one of the many influencer exchanges.

Native content — aka long-form ads — is the original fake news but is often positioned as an alternative to earned media. It isn’t fooling anyone, whether it’s called “custom editorial,” “commissioned,” or “special report.” Authenticity can’t be fabricated or bought, it must be earned. Legitimate news comes from professional journalists and is delivered by notable publications and media outlets. If a brand pays for this type of content, the output almost always automatically lacks authenticity. Instead it looks like what it is, an advertisement. Yet, when a brand earns a piece of media after work is done to connect with the editorial community, the result is almost always authentic.

Earned Media Matters Most

During my last few years on the agency side I held digital leadership positions at a few large firms, where many of these products fell under my purview. Despite my main focus being on supporting true earned work; at times I didn’t have a choice but to try to include influencer programs and native content. During one conversation with a client, when I used the firm’s official terminology to try and push an influencer and native content program, she asked a simple question: “So you want to buy advertorials and pay bloggers to write good stuff about us? No thanks, talk to [person] in marketing…” The quick dismissal wasn’t a surprise: her success was based on the number of positive stories placed, so she had no interest in “pay-for-play” tactics, much less for requesting budget to support work she didn’t believe in. She was interested in making connections between leaders from her company and the editorial staff of business media and trade publications and getting exposure at events… something she expected her PR firm to be able to do.

The idea of substituting pay-for-play output for real earned media and relationships is likely why many clients are leaving the large firms who have built a business on selling this type of work. Influencer programs and the native content that normally accompanies them do not focus on driving outcomes that matter to PR clients. The clients want to know the number of authentic connections they earn and the media mentions they net or to see an increase of inbound inquiries. This rarely happens through ads. Unlike paid placements that originate from advertising agencies, turnkey influencer programs and native content aren’t backed by research or audience insights and don’t fall into a larger campaign. Their success is generally measured by Impressions, something that’s built into the price.

The only real beneficiaries of influencer programs are the influencers selling their reach. Most influencer programs and native content are sold by vendors; the agency’s role is simply as a middle-man between their client and the vendor. This does not equal a capability, it’s simply a service. So to answer the question of What’s Wrong with Your Influencer Program?, most of the time they don’t work because they were never intended to — they were simply paid for and aren’t designed to generate any important outcome.

Getting Back to the Basics of PR

PR Firms, especially the good ones, built their business by providing expert outside counsel, maintaining key relationships with the media, and ultimately helping their clients get their story out in meaningful ways. Their main offering was rooted in authenticity — something that influencer programs and native content severely lack. While the new integrated areas that PR firms are trying to play in are certainly interesting and innovative and have a degree of flash, they run counter to core principals of the public relations discipline and put the firms in competition with agencies that know these new spaces better.

Earned media remains an essential part of the marketing mix. For the true integrated model to work for clients, the PR swim lane cannot be deprioritized or left vacant.

Adam L. Snyder is vice president of corporate communications at MUFG. He tweets @snyderstrategy

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