As study after study points to a public breakdown of trust in traditional institutions, such as political parties, big business and even trade unions, it has become clear that people are increasingly putting their faith in information delivered through a network of friends and acquaintances.
Due to growing cynicism, people are paying more attention to the opinions of people who are more accomplished messengers than the norm, either because they are better connected, smarter communicators of ideas or more expert in specific areas than the average person.
Parents are a good example. Even in sectors such as healthcare, they are the people with strong influence - you just have to look at the debate surrounding the MMR jab to see that.
This group of influencers cannot be ignored by any marketer or corporate communicator trying to get their client's message across. But it will mean that PR practitioners are faced with a very real challenge. How do you even identify - and, indeed, influence - those very people who exert the greatest influence over their peers?
It is certainly a matter of growing concern for the PR industry. In September, for example, Ketchum launched its Influencer Relationship Management product, designed to identify and reach the select group of people who, for each company or organisation, mould the perceptions and behaviours of customers and decision-makers.
The nature of persuasion is itself changing. Recognising the shift away from 'command and control' to greater 'bottom up' influence, specialist research and consultation firm Opinion Leader Research (OLR) has spent a year developing a panel it has named the Protagonists Network.
It defines protagonists as highly influential members of the public, with large networks of friends and acquaintances, who are, by nature, very persuasive. Their personalities differ from those people OLR typifies as 'perceivers', who are more likely to listen and be informed by protagonists - and may then act upon the information they receive.
'In real life, those people with charisma and information are listened to and are influential,' says OLR joint chief executive Deborah Mattinson.
'In any community, there will always be people whose views matter more.'
This can hardly be called ground-breaking information. But the difficulty for PROs is actually pinpointing and tapping into the minds of such people in a methodical way.
OLR thinks it has found the answer with its three-stage approach for locating protagonists in society.
Initially, people are asked a series of questions on attitudes and behaviour.
To identify whether individuals are protagonists, OLR explores their level of social activity, involvement in formal and informal networks, and engagement with issues and debates.
For the next stage, OLR asks people within a specific area, community or network to identify who they turn to for advice, counsel and knowledge.
Individuals referred to by numerous others are then interviewed by OLR's recruiters to ensure they are protagonists.
Finally, prior to being invited to join the Protagonists Network, all potential participants are 'auditioned' in a workshop environment to verify that they are protagonists. To date, OLR has 350 protagonists in its network, but intends to increase this in size.
Mattinson argues that the Protagonists Network offers clients 'unique access to the people who really count', and that these people are invaluable in helping to develop both policy and communications strategy.
'Any client with a reputational issue will want to understand how people who are leading the conversation in local communities think,' she says.
British Airways and Camelot are among the clients that have already made use of the Protagonists Network to inform their research and communications departments.
But will others follow? Weber Shandwick deputy CEO Sally Ward thinks it highly likely. She claims that many leading PR agencies have already set about identifying influencers 'instinctively', citing the work that Weber Shandwick has done for mobile phone client Siemens on finding style leaders as a good example. Ward welcomes the more sophisticated approach that OLR has taken.
Edelman joint chief executive Stuart Smith agrees that protagonist panels are useful for the industry, but warns that they need to be constructed carefully for different brands.
'I think these panels are particularly good for ideas generation and spotting trends,' he says. 'But the findings need to be backed up with quantitative research to make sure they reflect real trends - you wouldn't want to base your whole programme on just one focus group.'
However, Mattinson makes the point that the Protagonists Network can be used for qualitative research, such as focus groups and in-depth interviews, as well as quantitative research from, say, telephone and internet surveys.
More unusual approaches can also be developed, such as ethnographic approaches and creative workshop formats, where clients can work with protagonists to come up with shared solutions.
It is important to understand that being a protagonist is about a psychological/personality type rather than demographics. Protagonists come from all kinds of backgrounds and are 'as likely to be a mum in the playground as a man in the office by the water cooler', maintains Mattinson. They should not be confused with 'early adopters', people who are selected on the basis of their purchasing patterns.
Financial services marketing agency Teamspirit intends to use the Protagonists Network for one of its clients. Managing director Joanne Parker feels that financial services is a sector that stands to gain a great deal from a better understanding and utilisation of influencers, due to the 'alarming rate' at which trust is diminishing following the pensions crisis and a raft of financial scandals. One crucial factor in the network's favour, Parker feels, is that it will allow clients to engage with protagonists over a period of time.
Ogilvy London executive planning director Mark Earls believes protagonists' networks are practical tools that make the theory really useful for clients.
According to research from an Ogilvy sister agency in South Africa, says Earls, around six to seven per cent of the population can be categorised as 'super-connected' - a proportion he feels is valid for the UK, too.
Earls argues that the most important characteristic of humankind is that of a herd-animal, not a lone individual.
It is of course those people who lead the herd, or cause it to move in a particular direction, that marketers and corporate communicators need to reach. Persuasive people should never be ignored, as they come from every background and every community. Protagonists have already been ahead of mainstream opinion on a range of issues, such as scepticism over the true causes of war in Iraq, and even reactions against reality TV programmes.
But it will be identifying the characteristics of key influencers, and knowing how to persuade them, that will be the real challenge for PR practitioners.
ARE YOU A PROTAGONIST?
1. Your boss stops you to discuss a PR fiasco at a rival company.
You have absolutely no knowledge of this story:
A) Laugh at how rubbish they are while wondering how your boss has time to read the papers? (3)
B) Nod knowingly and pretend you know what he's talking about? (5)
C) Tell them about the alternative spin put on this story in another publication? (10)
2. Due to random job cuts you have recently been made redundant: Do you
A) Cry to all your colleagues about the injustice of losing your position? (3)
B) Contact a friend of a friend you met months ago who works for an interesting firm? (10)
C) Leave quietly and work out what you'll do in the next few weeks? (5)
3. You have been invited to both a dinner party and a business event next Wednesday, and are working all hours at the moment:
A) Decline both invites because you know that you'll be extremely tired from work? (3)
B) Say yes to both, and then go to the business event to show your face, but bail on the dinner party? (5)
C) Work like the clappers and still make both events? (10)
4. A friend wants to remortgage
and is asking around for advice because they don't trust the mortgage adviser's opinion:
A) Pass on the number of a good mortgage adviser? (5)
B) Listen to what they say because you're in a similar position and empathise with them? (3)
C) Pass on your opinion because you asked around and
read a lot? (10)
5. You get wind of a surprise birthday party being thrown for you:
A) Fret about who's going to be there? (5)
B) Try to make sure that your friends have the details of people you knew in primary school? (10)
C) Book a holiday to coincide with the date? (3)
Between 40 and 50 points You are a grade A protagonist.
You have the persuasive skills of Bill Clinton and the networking skills of Elizabeth Hurley. You'll go far. Or be extremely tired.
Between 20 and 40 points Potentially you are a protagonist. You offer opinions when necessary, but more often than not you keep your cards close to your chest.
Often you make guest appearances, but only for as long as you need to.
Bill Gates is your role model.
Under 20 points You prefer the creature comforts of home and a tight-knit circle of friends, and you like to keep your opinions firmly to yourself. Conversation-wise you're far more Iain Duncan Smith than Jonathan Ross.