Head to Head: Are influencers the next phase of political communication?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Lewis Shields, head of social at Herd MSL, goes head to head with Quiip's Amber Robinson on whether influencers are the next frontier of political communication.

Two weeks ago, US Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg invested a chunk of his campaign budget into commissioning micro-influencer-generated content via Tribe, sparking the question ‘Are influencers the next phase of political communication?’

Herd MSL’s Lewis Shields points out that young people are losing trust in politicians, but are turning to influencers and content creators to support important causes in society.

However, Quiip’s Amber Robinso  argues that people do not trust influencers enough, and sponsored posts don’t receive the desired engagement.

Lewis Shields, head of social at Herd MSL, argues ‘Yes’:

“Influencers play a vital role in enriching the democratic process for young voters. Looking back, no Australian under 30 has ever voted for a PM who has lasted a full term. It’s no wonder that trust in our politicians and voter turnout continues to decline.

“Influencers already highlight key political issues and galvanise the support of their audiences. James Brenchly’s 2013 DIY Rainbow in Sydney sparked a global movement about LGBTQI rights. This year, Turia Pitt launched @spendwiththem – an Instagram account with 200,000 followers to buy from businesses affected by bushfires.

“Young voters are highly engaged with core political issues, and are vocal. On Tik Tok, whose dominant user base is 13 to 25 year-olds – there are 1.8m views of content tagged #auspol, and 24.6m views of #Scomo.

“Political communication needs to be visionary and practical. It also needs to be trusted. And with such a trust gap in our society, influencers – like journalists and stakeholders – are an important channel.

“As private individuals, the nature of the engagement should be approached with caution. In regards to monetary arrangement, influencers should never be paid to buy their opinions. Instead, we should utilise their skills to create content and conversation, using facts and information.

“Influencers allow us to broaden the reach of our communications to audiences which are largely disenfranchised. Increasing the number of vocal parties on political issues will broaden the scale and quality of discourse, building relevance and engagement amongst young voters.”

Amber Robinson, community manager at Quiip, argues ‘No’:

“It is true that social media plays a huge role in political influence, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. It is essential for political candidates and parties to be engaged in social listening to discern voter sentiment and to share and amplify persuasive messages with voters.

“Authenticity is the key to persuasion on social media, however, and voters will only engage with a message if delivered by a person or brand they believe to be real and trustworthy (e.g., Jacinda Adern, who performs well on Facebook) or someone they trust personally, such as a friend. Paid ads and sponsored posts are much less likely to gain traction.

“Even putting aside the regulatory issues with engaging political influencers in Australia, the trust factor just isn’t there for influencers. Last year’s UM Wave research found that 63% of internet users said that more than 50% of the information they get from bloggers and vloggers is not true. People might be willing to part with $20 for a skin cream recommended by an influencer, but would buy a political endorsement? I doubt it. Indeed, Bloomberg’s first wave of Instagram sponsorship, targeting meme makers, saw the sponsored accounts hit with thousands of negative comments regarding their tacit endorsement of a candidate who is on the record with problematic statements about race and gender issues.

“Instead, I’d put money into amplifying the voices of existing communities of promoters and in working with established and trusted media entities to disseminate key messages.”

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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