If you are a younger millennial or a Gen Z-er, you are more likely to have heard of Caroline Calloway than Citibank, Zoella rather than Zurich, and James Charles rather than J.P. Morgan. Social media has made mega stars of ‘influencers’ who have used their self-made media platforms to create audiences of millions.
With an ever-more engaged, information-hungry generation on the rise, the financial services sector could take a page or two from the influencer handbook when it comes to engaging their audience and promoting both their content and themselves.
Surviving bad PR
There has been an unprecedented number of media storms that devastated the social media influencer landscape recently. From allegations of a serious and potentially criminal nature involving makeup guru and LGBTQ+ icon James Charles, to accusations of plagiarism, bullying and scamming by self-proclaimed “Instagram writer” Caroline Calloway, and the now infamous Fyre Festival scandal, where social media influencers helped propagate a multi-million dollar fraudulent enterprise.
However, it isn’t just social media influencers who have been caught up in scandal: from the fall of Neil Woodford, to Deutsche Bank’s involvement in the Danske Bank money-laundering case, and protests from Extinction Rebellion in the heart of the City, 2019 has shown no shortage of scrutiny of the financial sector.
It is, however, undoubtable that one group has come out more favourably from these PR storms. While Neil Woodford may never recover from his funds’ collapse, a number of influencers have been able to ‘rise from the ashes’ and shrug off their personal scandals.
Faced with unrelenting criticism over his alleged poor behaviour, Youtuber James Charles issued a public apology video. This showed humanity, genuine emotion and a willingness to admit to his own mistakes. As such, a fan-generated live counter which was tracking the numbers of followers he was losing per minute has been replaced with one tracking increasing follows, and the star has secured new partnerships and advertisement opportunities. When a former friend released a lurid tell-all story about her, Instagrammer Caroline Calloway was quick to admit her problems and didn’t hide from any of her critics, and now has an upcoming movie deal and more followers than ever before.
So what do these self-made internet celebrities have that gives them an edge over how they redeem themselves or even come out unscathed from various media storms? Social-media savvyness, self-awareness and a willingness to take their narrative by the horns help influencers successfully manage their scandals.
Maximum engagement pays off
It is clear that influencers have a knack for crisis communications, and this is due, in no small part, to a natural alignment and engagement with their audience, something that many financial companies still lack.
It is much easier to see how you are perceived by your audience when every single like has the potential to be monetised, and every single comment featured on your channel has the potential to go viral. Influencers, by their nature, have to remain engaged with what their audience wants, how it perceives them and what their target demographic is if they are to survive in a mass of ever-emerging and competing internet personalities.
Online influencers regularly post videos where they go into minute detail about the scandals and transgressions of their competitors, or otherwise adeptly defend their own tarnished reputations against allegations, true or false. These are watched and followed, as a bloodsport, by millions online. Getting that same level of engagement and market understanding from your client base is something that financial services companies could only dream of right now.
Taking a leaf out the influencer playbook
Of course, we are not suggesting that a financial services CEO should issue an emotional, two-hour takedown video on a rival brand. But, in an up-to-the-minute news environment, where the opinions from a few hours ago are already old news, there is value in financial services companies going on the offensive, or at least having the necessary tools ready to defend themselves and strike while the iron is hot. That means media training key leaders, cultivating a rich public persona that is genuine and appealing to your customer base, and having exceptional relationships with the press.
Influencers today are digital natives, and many have built their platform from childhood. Busy senior financial services executives cannot be expected to have the time and knowhow to be able to engage with and win over online critics with the same fervor as social media stars. That said, a bold, multi-channel PR programme backed up by smart strategy and well-planned crisis communications is the most effective way to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of online critics and media alike.