Rising influence: From TikTok to thought leadership, PR firms are showing companies new ways to build recognition

Dan Ivers. (Antenna)

There’s a trend that public relations and marketing firms are liking and subscribing to.

It involves taking advantage of the pull that influencers on YouTube, TikTok or other platforms have with their audience. While it doesn’t always make sense for a brand — and, although it often comes with a price tag — the exposure from influencers is headed from novel to necessity when it comes to promoting products and services.

Dan Ivers, vice president of Antenna Group, said PR and marketing firms have been turning to influencers more often over recent years.

“But, really, it’s nothing new — if you consider how long marketing firms have used celebrities as a spokesperson for a brand,” he said. “The rise of social media has allowed people who are not famous in the traditional sense to curate an online brand and a following. Companies have started leveraging that in a way that resonates with their target audience.”

PR and marketing firm leaders will point out right away some of the differences encountered when it comes to engaging with influencers. There are the straightforward transactions: the paid campaigns, wherein companies pay influencers to promote products, services or events.

Scott Marioni. (R&J Strategic Communications)

Scott Marioni, president of Bridgewater-based R&J Strategic Communications, said that arrangement is most popular in the consumer product space. But it has spilled into other arenas, as media outlets have seen resources dry up, while social media channels proliferate, he added.

Marioni has experience with it. In his firm’s work with the company Polaroid, influencers dedicated to photography as a hobby were key to unlocking a niche market.

“It wasn’t the Kardashians, or people with hundreds of millions of followers,” he said. “It was people with 10,000 to 100,000 followers who were very influential in a space important to the client.”

The cost of the exposure might range from a couple of free products to a significant paycheck for influencers with prodigious followings.

Is it worth it? Marioni suggests the potential for return on investment is sometimes cloudy.

“But, it’s made more tangible with the advent of technologies that can give you metrics on how many people might have viewed a post, or track the number of times it was clicked,” he said. “Those metrics come closer to an objective measure of that ROI.”

There are aspects that are almost impossible to quantify, he adds. If an influencer with millions of followers talks about a brand a number of times — delivering the sort of message that a PR team hopes for — that’s going to introduce a new level of brand awareness and appreciation.

But it’s not going to introduce numbers to plug into a spreadsheet.

One thing is clear to Marioni. Certain (younger) segments of the market trust these influencers, even when firms are essentially just using them in advertising arrangements.

“There’s a whole generation of people that trust them more than traditional media outlets, regardless of knowing these are paid campaigns,” he said. “Anecdotally, I’ve talked to younger people who value someone building up a brand for themselves that they can relate to. For them, they understand there’s a risk of an influencer harming that personal brand by endorsing something they don’t truly value or think is useful to their followers. It’s about authenticity.”

There’s another form that the influencer takes, especially for a PR and marketing firm’s business-to-business clientele. And it doesn’t always involve a paid-for endorsement on social media platforms.

“More common in that area is positioning a company’s own executives, not as influencers, in a way that we refer to as thought leadership,” Marioni said. “They’re the ones driving adoption of their product or overall business strategy.”

Chris Rosica. (Rosica Communications)

Chris Rosica, CEO and president of Paramus-based Rosica Communications, said that, in conjunction with other PR and marketing activities, establishing the leaders of a company as thought leaders helps brands stand out in sectors such as health care and education.

PR firms also look to connect with industry influencers outside a company who might be speaking at trade shows or other media events. Sometimes that dialogue turns into a firm paying for that commentator’s time to write an article or opinion piece.

“In my view, that’s less commercial an arrangement than, ‘Pay me X amount and I’ll put something on my social media feed for you,’” Rosica said, adding that, “Having these high-level professionals speaking on your behalf brings credibility.”

Whatever the arrangement, PR professionals agree that companies would be setting themselves up for a potential PR fiasco by not doing some homework on the influencer they’re courting.

For big brands (with big budgets), there are intermediary companies that can do that vetting as a service. Those platforms can also help match companies with the right influencer for their target demographic in the first place. Otherwise, Marioni said the PR firm will do the legwork — which can be significant, he’ll add — by scrolling through social media histories.

“Part of that is researching past posts to make sure they haven’t posted something politically incendiary or any other potential powder kegs when you’re getting a brand involved and associated with this person,” Marioni said.

Amy Stern. (3E Public Relations)

Influencers might be influencing PR, but, according to Amy Stern, they aren’t replacing it.

Stern, senior vice president of 3E Public Relations, said basic PR — as in, working with reporters on “earned media” placements as prominent stories in publications — still yields incredible results, even in the consumer product category.

She spoke of working with an ice cream startup few had heard of that made it into a food section of the New York Times.

“After that, their phone rang off the hook for two days,” she said. “Distributors and major grocery retailers were asking, ‘How do I get this into my store?’”

Generating that sort of overnight interest from potential business partners would have been difficult to do with social media giveaways or influencer endorsement, Stern believes.

In other words, she’s not a fan of social media promotion in a vacuum.

“I don’t want to say those platforms don’t have value, because they have tremendous value, but it’s more that you would never recommend to a client that they only use something like social media in lieu of earned media,” she said. “There’s a tendency to always go to the shiny, new thing. But there are things social media can’t achieve alone.

“It’s really a combination of tools that will allow brands to be successful.”