With social media becoming the new newsroom, influencers have now overtaken journalists as the primary source of news and information among young audiences.
A survey of 96,000 people in 46 countries by Britain-based Reuters Institute revealed that 55% of TikTok and Snapchat users and 52% of Instagram users get their news from social media personalities – compared to 33 and 42% from mainstream journalists on those platforms.
Besides typical news about politics, economics, and international relations, young audiences turn to social media influencers, particularly for conversations about lifestyle, culture, arts, and technology due to their personality-based, participatory, and personalized nature.
This shift in news consumption didn’t happen overnight, though. A white paper published by Vero in 2019 found that influencers are the most trusted communication channel in Southeast Asia, with 70% of followers saying that influencers believe in their endorsements, whether sponsored or not. This is because trust among influencers is a kind of currency – the primary thing that separates them from ads and, therefore, at the core of their value.
As more young people turn to influencers for news and information, a new pathway is emerging for brands to harness the command they hold. The authenticity and relatability that characterize influencers can serve as valuable assets during PR crises, as these qualities can be readily employed to effectively address and navigate the public relations challenges that brands may confront.
Tapping influencers for PR crisis
In PR crisis management, where once traditional strategies like crisis announcements, media interviews, and op-eds on mainstream news channels held sway, influencers may now step into the spotlight as “alternative voices.” With their flair for the unconventional, these influencers can infuse crisis management with a refreshing new perspective that rewrites the rules of engagement.
A beverage company’s equity valuation dropped sharply after a popular football player snubbed its product, saying everyone should be drinking water instead, during a pre-match presser in 2022. To mitigate the impact of the PR embarrassment, the brand quickly introduced a new campaign that involved micro-influencers, gamers, and athletes.
A sportswear giant faced a much bigger crisis last year after it launched a campaign showing 25 pairs of bare breasts – uncensored though without faces. While the campaign was meant to celebrate women’s body types and promote inclusivity, negative sentiments about women objectification overshadowed its original intention. Remaining resolute, the brand reiterated its objective and sought the help of an Indian influencer to be the face of the campaign. Following this strategic move, the brand experienced a notable surge in sales, even within countries that had initially opposed the campaign.
“When a PR crisis emerges, influencers can play a pivotal role in defusing tensions by delivering messages with empathy and transparency,” says Umaporn Whittaker-Thompson, Vero’s Group Vice President of Consumer Communications and InFluent lead.
“Their ability to put a relatable face on the brand can quell concerns and misconceptions, fostering a sense of understanding and unity. The synergy between influencers and brands creates a two-way street of communication, enabling influencers to provide real-time insights into public sentiment while allowing brands to respond promptly with genuine solutions.”
Harnessing authenticity in crisis communication
Influencers’ authenticity and relatability can resonate more powerfully than traditional PR messages, so they’re invaluable for providing honest insights, explanations, and even heartfelt apologies. Their credibility with their audience makes it easier for them to uphold or rebuild trust; in the process, they humanize the brands they work with.
On the other hand, audiences can quickly detect inauthenticity, so any collaboration between a brand and an influencer should be as transparent as possible. Rushing to bring on unprepared influencers with no prior brand connection to face the public during a crisis will smack of desperation and whitewashing. Instead, it’s important to proactively prepare influencers for potential crises the brand could face, ensure they understand any sensitive issues at play, and provide guidelines on how to respond in different crisis scenarios.
In doing so, brands should select influencers who align with the brand’s values and messaging and make an effort to cultivate trusting relationships with them that go beyond transactional endorsements. This sort of genuine rapport can lead to influencers being more eager to lend their credibility and voice when they’re most needed and more convincing when they do so.
As brands and influencers partner up beyond mere product endorsements, their approach to managing reputational challenges is undergoing transformation. This shift prioritizes authenticity and real-time engagement, placing trust, transparency, and strategic collaboration as pivotal to steering through PR hurdles.