City and Corporate: Issues come first, influencers second

The future of issues management: preparing for the next generation of influencers who will shape your business.

Barron: 'Social movements have proved able to grow rapidly and catch institutions off-balance'
Barron: 'Social movements have proved able to grow rapidly and catch institutions off-balance'

At a time when individuals can have an impact on businesses as powerful as Starbucks or Disney, the importance of influencers is clear. But if your first question is "Who are the influencers I need to worry about next?" your approach is wrong. In the Networked Age, issues come first, influencers second.

From our influencers special: Exclusive survey – what PR and marketing chiefs really think about influencer marketing

The influencers who will shape your licence to operate aren’t building their knowledge of a topic and cultivating people interested in a single issue. They are strident generalists, collecting followers with shared values, hungry for new material.

From Momentum to #BoycottSolo, social movements have proved able to grow rapidly and catch institutions off balance, birthing important influencers or drawing established ones in.

No listening exercise could have flagged Swedish student Elin Ersson (below) before she streamed herself refusing to sit down on a Turkish Airlines flight deporting an Afghan citizen, yet her protest became global news. All she needed to become an influencer was a phone and an emotive story on a political fault-line.

No mapping tool could have helped Starbucks avoid the controversy (below) sparked by one of its Philadelphia stores’ treatment of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. When influencers did add their opprobrium, they included Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, among other big names. To prepare for reputational risk, therefore, organisations should look at emerging issues and ‘wargame’ which influencers will shape the conversation.

From our influencers special: The business of influence: how savvy are today's stars of social?

University College London’s Affective Brain Lab has been working to understand how psychology affects influence.

Passionate subjects create movements, and the biggest influencers have values most similar to those of their audience. This is accelerated by hyperpolarisation in groups – people with similar values coalesce around the extreme position after discussing a topic. Such groups form easily around hashtags, the position becomes a matter of identity and activists emerge.

Three things produce passionate communities in this era:

1. Care and fairness. According to Jonathan Haidt of NYU Stern School of Business, these are the two dominant values of liberal progressives. Issues where there are identifiable winners and losers will attract most support. Identity politics will play a growing role in reputation management.

2. An enemy. We tend to support causes that allow us to oppose someone. This is one reason why Oxfam’s focus on the super-rich vs the bottom 50 per cent has been so successful. Organisations need to avoid being cast as ‘the other side’. #BBCswitchoff flopped because progressives don’t see Auntie as the enemy.

3. Scope for participation. Everyone is a PR person now, cultivating their personal reputation. Stories where people can be part of ‘the solution’ are more likely to gain traction.

So, who are the future influencers you need to worry about? Anyone with a phone who believes they are on the right side of history. But most of all, worry about the issues.

Nick Barron is deputy chief executive of MHP

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