Have Influencers Lost Their Influence? A PR Perspective

About the author

Leila Jones prepared this thought leadership article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Dubai: a good work place for influencers during the lockdown. Image by Keerthi Ramesh from Pixabay
Dubai: a good work place for influencers during the lockdown. Image by Keerthi Ramesh from Pixabay
Leila Jones
Leila Jones

Dubai – a city known to be a playground for the rich and famous. At the end of 2020, it became a ‘work base’ for many social media influencers. The issue was that many of them flew out to ‘work’ (see: take photos for Instagram) at the same time as the UK went into a national lockdown, with all but essential travel permitted.

The industry was cast into the limelight; those usually restricted to the showbiz columns found themselves front-page news. For brands, social teams were barraged by customers calling for them to drop influencers from their campaign. In light of the Dubai debacle, do influencers still have the same cut through, or are audiences wising up to the pitfalls of the industry?

Influencer marketing is one of the youngest marketing tactics out there. In 2015, the industry was worth $450m[1]. In 2020, it was projected to be worth over $8bn.

Influencers can be a bridge between a brand and its customer, acting as a friend with a recommendation. Used wisely, influencer marketing is a powerful tactic that can deliver plenty of ROI.

But, when brands fail to do enough due diligence on their influencer campaigns, they can go wrong. For example, Pepsi’s 2017 campaign with Kendall Jenner is recognised as one of the biggest influencer marketing fails[2]. It centred on an advert featuring Jenner diffusing tension between protestors and the police by offering them a can of Pepsi. It was taken down after just one day, and according to Yougov[3], Pepsi hit its lowest consumer perception level in 10 years a week after the advert premiered. The timing of the advert, around the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the choice of influencer – after all, supermodel Kendall Jenner isn’t the first face you think of when it comes to fighting social injustice – led to its place in the biggest influencer marketing fails of all time. Fortunately, Pepsi followed basic crisis management principles by acting fast and taking corrective action, which meant that they were able to recover, according to the Yougov perception survey.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, influencers can do great things. Take Dr Alex George, ex-Love Island contestant, who has continued to work as an A&E Doctor on the NHS frontline throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He was recently appointed as a Mental Health Ambassador for the UK Government. Any brand who is able to partner with him will reap the benefits, thanks to his current position.

Are influencers credible enough to be used in brand campaigns?

When investigating the theory around influencer marketing, it can go back to 1991,  before social media was even invented. A study by Dr. Sevil Yesiloglu[4] referenced Ohanian’s 1991 source credibility model. Studies have looked at celebrity endorsement, which is the precursor of modern influencer marketing. Yesiloglu’s investigation applied the source credibility theory to social media influencers, finding that the bigger the number of endorsements, the lower the credibility. Yet, Nazeral[5] stated that influencers were just as likely as celebrities to drive buying decisions. Yesiloglu found that brands could expect the same outcome when they invest in influencer campaigns as they could using celebrities. It has to be the right influencer, with a level of credibility and engagement with their audience in order to get results.

The next layer of credibility is trust. Xiao et al[6] found that trustworthiness has a significant impact on credibility. So, if an influencer is doing a lot of sponsored content it may impact their trustworthiness. It can only be assumed that if a celebrity is caught lying to their followers, their credibility will be affected even more. Take the example of reality star Zara McDermott – at the end of 2020, she flew to the Maldives but continued to share photos with the geolocation of London. Despite backlash mounting against McDermott, fashion brand Missguided[7] pressed ahead with their campaign starring her promoting their new fitness range. On McDermott’s image announcing the campaign ,shot in a gym, the background was blurred. On Missguided’s Instagram, the background wasn’t edited – and looked tropical. One comment under the image stated: “Forgot to edit the picture? Unforgivable that someone would break Tier 4 travel rules and fly off to the Maldives.”

There is now no sign of McDermott on the Missguided site, and the products from the range have been reduced at the time of writing. McDermott only gained 6.5k Instagram followers in January[8] – a huge drop from the 29k she had gained the month before.

The public is taking notes of who can be trusted, and voting with their thumbs hovering over the follow/unfollow button.

If an influencer marketing campaign has gone wrong like Missguided’s campaign did, you have to act fast. The audience will have access to social media, where information spreads like wildfire. Fearn-Banks[9] says the key is to know the difference between an apology and an excuse. Brands need to put out a statement, laying out all the facts of what happened and why, and share this on social media and with news outlets. Missguided chose not to do this, instead opting for the quiet approach of dropping the campaign and not mentioning it again.

Celebrity or micro influencers?

One way that brands can work with influencers is to use micro-influencers, not celebrities. Tribe, the influencer marketing platform, defines micro-influencers as ‘everyday people with a decent following of over 3,000 who are usually passionate about a specific niche’[10]. This niche could be anything from fashion and interiors to tech and travel. Tribe says that micro-influencers are ‘relatable, genuine and trustworthy’ – three factors that influence credibility, as outlined by Xiao and Yesiloglu.

So, for the same price that you might pay for a celebrity influencer – for example, £20,000 – you could get 10 micro-influencers, increasing the reach of your campaign. One example of this is the shower gel brand, Original Source, and their campaign ‘Pack More In’. The brand had used the cast of Made in Chelsea[11] to advertise the on-pack competition, but in 2019, pivoted the strategy to team up with four well-known travel influencers – @Funforlouis, @Naomijaneadams, @Doyoutravel and @Jacob. Each influencer posted once to encourage their followers to enter the on-pack competition, and the overall campaign drove over 115,000 engagements[12]. This method of using niche influencers to target people interested in travel directly would have been far more affordable than the 2018 TV advertising campaign.

Gone are the days of trying to get anyone with a blue tick to advertise your product. To reach the right audience, you need to be selecting relevant influencers who are trusted by their audience.


Strategy for selecting influencers in future

It’s clear that influencer marketing isn’t dead, despite the industry taking a battering in the press over the COVID-19 pandemic. For brands, there is still a lot of value to be found in working with content creators. But, there needs to be more due diligence.

As PR professionals, one of the first thoughts is always reputation management. Professionals will need to anticipate how the brand’s reputation can be protected, so when working with external influencers, research into their reputation will be the first step. This can be in the form of a Google search, checking their Social Blade statistics, doing a sweep of their Instagram to check how many adverts they’ve posted in the last few months, and ensuring they haven’t worked with any competitor brands. According to Griffin[13] the most challenging factor for communications professionals working on external risks to reputation is understanding the issue and how it is perceived. He says that bringing the outside in is the best strategic response – so consider asking your audience how they feel about influencers, or ask internal teams who might not work directly on communications.

If after doing due diligence, working with a big celebrity influencer seems too risky, adopting a micro-influencer approach can help test the water, and even increase the ROI. There will be smaller accounts out there who have better engagement with their audience and can help drive home your key messages.

Have influencers lost their influence? Not exactly – with the right level of research and a mindset of cautious due diligence, influencer marketing can add value to a business. PR professionals need to be aware of reputation management and the risks that working with a big celebrity influencer can bring. It will be interesting to see how the industry moves with the post-coronavirus times – will celebrities’ trustworthiness decrease as they get back to their normal lives? In PR, as long as there is always a plan for every eventuality, the risks can be managed and professionals can reap the rewards of influencer marketing.


[1] Global Instagram influencer marketing spending 2013-2020. Published by Statista Research Department, Jan 14, 2021

[2] Astute, https://astute.co/pepsi-kendall-jenner-commercial/

[3] Yougov, https://today.yougov.com/topics/food/articles-reports/2017/04/19/pepsi-recovering-slowly-pulling-kendall-jenner-ad

[4] Influencer Marketing Building Brand Communities and Engagement, Yesiloglu & Costello, 2020

[5] Nazeral (2017) – How YouTube influencers are rewriting the marketing rulebook

[6] Xiao et al (2018) – Factors affecting YouTube influencer marketing credibility: a heuristic-systematic model

[7] Metro https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/07/zara-mcdermott-called-out-for-editing-maldives-photo-after-rule-break-13863057/

[8] Social Blade data – https://socialblade.com/

[9] Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach, K Fearn-Banks, 2011

[10] Tribe https://www.tribegroup.co/blog/what-is-a-micro-influencer?

[11] Prolific North, https://www.prolificnorth.co.uk/news/marketing-services/2018/08/wavemaker-team-made-chelsea-original-source-campaign

[12] Instagram engagement data

[13] Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management, Griffin, 2014