In a 2008 panel discussion about influencer marketing and public relations I was asked how I would respond if a blogger asked me to pay them to use the story I was pitching for my client. My response then was I would tell them to go to hell.

Certainly, that was a melodramatic way to underline a point and poke the bear a bit. I’ve always been good at stirring things up.

My point was these new “influencers” in the burgeoning world of social media didn’t understand how public relations worked. They didn’t realize that good public relations professionals pitch stories to you that are highly relevant to your audience — stories  you would probably write anyway if you knew about them — and they are there to be a resource in informing or entertaining your readers.

You know what? I was wrong.

It wasn’t that bloggers didn’t get PR and were doing something wrong. It was that the world of PR evolved to the point we believed our own bullshit. Who the hell are we to think that any writer or influencer anywhere should just write about our thing without expecting some form of compensation? At its core, the argument is ludicrous. It would be as if the client said to the PR person, “Go pitch this story to all the influencers in our vertical free of charge … because having a good relationship with us is important to you.”

And PR folks were good, too. We have an entire world of traditional journalism believing it. So much so, they think doing it any other way that something for nothing undermines their integrity. (But that’s not only a generalization, but a whole different blog post.)

The new media influencers disrupted a flawed model and have begun to make it right. Public relations professionals are now going into a campaign with budgets to engage with influencers. They’re adding native advertising to their list of tactics. They’re putting budgets behind social posts to increase reach and resonance. This is a good thing.

Or is it?

Certainly public relations professionals can be useful resources to influencers and bloggers. I see free-information or access-for-coverage continuing, but in a primarily pull fashion — when the influencer wants it, not the other way around. But the pay-for-play model undermines the credibility of the influencer and the resonance of the message. Sure, it can be done — and has been — by hundreds of influencers. But for every single, well-executed influencer marketing opportunity, there are dozens of “click this junk I got paid for” posts that make you sick to your stomach.

Consumers are smart. They’ll begin to notice and turn those influencers off.

In our collective move toward a more fair and equitable market for disseminating company information we must be careful to protect the integrity the audience’s trust in the influencer, or the power of that relationship goes away. What does that mean?

  • PR programs need to ensure the influencers in question are highly relevant to the campaign or product at hand. (Stop adding influencers in related fields just because they have a lot of followers.)
  • The “ask” needs to be in line with what the influencer normally does with his or her audience to engage them. (No stupid pet tricks. You can be creative, but don’t do something his or her audience would find out-of-line with what they’re used to seeing.)
  • Involve the influencer in the campaign, don’t just push the campaign to them. (Ask for their input on what else you could do.)
  • FTC and other disclosures must be respected and insisted upon. (Disclose, disclose, disclose.)

What about you? How would you as a PR professional, or influencer, strengthen the opportunities to ensure the integrity of the influencer-audience relationship was protected? The comments are yours.

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