Written by: 

Roger Croix Webb

Public Diplomacy Practitioner, on Leave of Absence from the United States Department of State.*

*The views and opinions expressed in this essay are exclusively those of its author and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

“No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately.”

                                                                                                                       Michel de Montaigne

There was a moment in history when the United States was desperate for a friend. The fledgling nation was a year into its war of independence and faced certain defeat at the hands of the world’s greatest superpower. American hopes hinged on enlisting French support for the cause, which General Washington understood would not come without considerable persuasion. Washington turned to the young country’s most globally recognized figure, the man known around the world as America’s foremost scientific and literary mind—Benjamin Franklin.

Known today as the father of American diplomacy, at the time Franklin was a pure influencer. In contrast to his colleagues, Franklin was the anti-diplomat, ingratiating himself by playing to high French society’s campy views of Americans. He was renowned for his coonskin cap and lack of adherence to court protocols, and it was this ability to connect on a personal level with French elites which set him apart. In a negotiation between two sharply contrasting governments, it was this connection that ultimately carried the day.

The fact that Franklin was an influencer first and a diplomat second is a perfect starting point for today’s debate on whether governments should solicit influencer support to advance their policy objectives. However, influencers have always existed and have always been a major tool in the service of forging stronger, lasting ties between nations and peoples. Consequently, the question should not necessarily be whether to use influencers, but rather how best to use them.

Today’s social media influencers are plagued by an often-deserved unkind public perception. The professional influencer carries a connotation of paid messaging and is widely viewed as inherently disingenuous. This perception is exacerbated by the cacophony of phony messengers, celebrities, and would-be celebrities vying for attention for the sake of attention.

The public’s natural distrust of influencers is probably only surpassed by the public’s natural distrust of the government. Simply put, a government is rarely viewed as a credible messenger. People seek truth from the government, to be sure, in form of transparency and accountability. The government is the last entity that most individuals would want to yield influence over them. We surrender our sense of independence and self to so many other influences, from soft-drink companies to clothing lines and big tech—a price many begrudgingly pay for a desired service, product, or lifestyle. But the moment people sense a government is looking to influence their behavior, they run away.

Governments and influencers. If you put the two together, what could possibly go wrong? Yet, if governments desire to change behaviors to advance their policy goals, there are few alternatives. And the more governments become increasingly data-driven to justify funding, the more huge followings of online influencers gain appeal.

However, taking a narrow view of today’s social media influencers skews the debate on how this type of partnership can be mutually beneficial. Ben Franklin was definitely not the first influencer successfully used by a government to secure a policy win, and will not be the last. Through centuries, governments have enlisted the help of scholars, journalists, scientists, athletes, artists of all stripes, business executives and entrepreneurs, and other luminaries.

This history of cultural diplomacy is instructive when considering whether to partner with influencers in the digital sphere. When governments look to influencers to add an element of authenticity to their messaging, they would do well to begin by seeking out partnerships with influencers known for something other than being an influencer. It should be obvious—a voice that is famous for being famous will not add any depth or credibility to the conversation. This bad choice is often made exponentially worse when it is clear the government is overtly pursuing partnership based on the race, ethnicity, orientation, or gender of the influencer. An influencer who is well-known first for their professional achievements will stand a much better chance of being viewed as believable and sincere, especially if the message they carry is somehow related to their field of expertise.

The nature of public engagement is to advance our policy objectives. Yet we are faced with the reality that governments are rarely the best messenger to advocate on their own behalf. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply a realization of the complexity of the issues we are working on and the communities we need to engage. The challenges we all face, both on communal and global levels, are often complex. To believe that anyone entity—especially the one that happens to be a foreign government—could have all the answers is complete folly.

When a policy fails and it is deemed to be the fault of the public engagement strategy, it can often be attributed to the lack of credibility of the messenger.

Practitioners exhaust untoward energy debating whether governments should be enlisting the help of influencers. The conversation generally takes place backward. Rather than asking Should governments do this?, a better question is Does the assessment and program design process dictate using an intermediary messenger?. The process must come first—assessing potential target audiences against strategic goals should shape both the message and the messenger. The first step should always be a planning and audience analysis process, which is detailed enough to guide the engagement design, and later its implementation. Asking whether to use an influencer at the onset is a recipe for arguing in circles. The practitioner’s task is to determine the right message for the right audience delivered at the right moment by the right messenger.

Furthermore, we should ask to what extent influencers actually influence. Academics Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds challenged the traditional assumptions on information flows and how they shape public opinion. Their findings were counterintuitive, suggesting that major influencers might not actually exist—or perhaps their real influence is in fact significantly less powerful than perceived. Watts and Dodds believed in the rare existence of conditions required for an influential figure to directly trigger or sustain a mass ‘cascade’ of influence, thereby shaping public opinion. To them, influence flows from the easily persuaded to the easily persuaded and only becomes truly influential once a critical mass is met. In short, this is a case of the gullible leading the gullible, where influencers play a minor role if distinguishable at all. In a wonderfully descriptive analogy, these information flows can be likened to a forest fire, where the size and scope of the fire has little to do with the spark that started it or the size of the tree that initially sustained it. The outside conditions that allow that fire to burn out of control is a greater determining factor as to how far the fire will burn.[1]

Their conclusion adds greater credence to the need to elevate the role of the planning process. If certain conditions are required for a campaign to be successful, practitioners had better check whether these conditions exist before expending substantial funding and resources on an influencer campaign. Program designers can increase the odds of creating that spark to ignite a forest fire by instituting a strong assessment and design process.

For the public diplomacy specialist and strategist—and by extension, the digital practitioner—these types of studies should provide information on how to design meaningful campaigns that are more likely to succeed. The research demonstrates the need for the right conditions as well as active and sustained participation to achieve success. Even if the conditions are deemed ripe for mass influence, don’t just strike a single spark and consider it a job well done. Build a system of fires at strategic points and pour as much accelerant on them as possible.

Failures also arise when governments stray from a strong design process. When a government cannot explain the process and underlying reasoning behind its public engagement strategies, the ensuing tidal wave of criticism can be crippling.

A recent example is illustrative—the municipal government of Minneapolis was outed for attempting to contract influencers during the month leading up to the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. The city intended to pay $2,000 apiece to six social media influencers over the course of the trial as a counter to the charged atmosphere in the city and the global attention the case garnered. In the government’s own words, the idea was for influencers to simply disseminate “city generated and approved” messages

On the surface, the Minneapolis plan appears to be a well-thought-out effort, combining civic engagement and traditional media campaigns alongside the social media influencer program. Partnering with community leaders and civil society organizations to build linkages between them and disadvantaged communities is exactly what the Minneapolis government should have been doing.

However, Minneapolis officials made a grievous and predictable error. Government–influencer partnerships are most successful when there is the history of doing so—both in practice and in terms of their relationship with influencers themselves. Waiting until the eve of one of the most momentous moments in recent history to pay influencers to parrot a government talking point will lead to foreseeable and calamitous results. At best, it will be a poorly managed program without success. At worst, it will be seen as tokenism, waving a hand at a runaway train.

The public reaction to the plan was immensely negative, and the city eventually scrapped the idea. Needless to say, even if the plan had gone forward, the city would not have achieved any level of legitimacy in its communications to the city’s population.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one example of a government successfully partnering with social media influencers in the UK government’s drive to increase public enrollment in a contact tracing program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK turned to social media influencers to nudge people to enroll in the program after the initial campaign was falling just short of the stated impact goals.

There are a number of stark differences between the success of the UK program compared to the one of Minneapolis. The influencer campaign was integrated into a broader media strategy that included all forms of traditional outlets, from press to radio and television. The government paid 42 influencers on a sliding scale based on the size of their audiences, which ranged from around 9,000 followers to over a million and a half. The government had sought out specific “key micro and macro-influencers to reach young adults on a channel they regularly engage with”. The UK digital practitioners were clearly deliberate in their approach, enlisting the support of influencers who they knew would be seen as credible, based on a clearly defined target audience analysis. The influencers they employed were to reach a very specific segment of the population that would otherwise be missed by other aspects of their campaign. In short, the audience analysis drove the influencer program.

Further setting the UK campaign apart was the transparency with which it was conducted. There is no sign that UK officials muzzled the influencers by directing their content, other than asking them to use coordinated hashtags. In addition, the government made public a list of the influencers used and the amount paid for their services. While the contact tracing program has since become controversial for other reasons, the influencer program itself was never the story and was in fact a critical component of the government’s goal to “help ensure the public has the information it needs”. The government even estimates that the campaign reached over 7 million people who would otherwise not have been engaged.

Minneapolis was in a bad position of its own making and attempted to pay messengers to make it look better—without the accompanying and necessary change of policy.  Generating a more positive image, which is what Minneapolis wanted to do, is not in itself a valid policy objective. Meanwhile, it was relatively easier for the UK government to shift gears to build upon a program that already existed and was doing well, but not well enough.

The importance of transparency and accountability cannot be overstated. On the one hand, an open approach can help avoid the visceral public response witnessed in Minneapolis— where there was no discernable element of transparency in the plan’s development, roll-out, or implementation. But taken further, we should understand that hiring intermediaries is a common strategy employed by state sponsors of disinformation, whereby foreign governments use in-country influencers. For the malign actor, the goal is to push content in order to sow discord that is indistinguishable from local discourse. These countries have learned how to leverage influencers to add a sense of authenticity to subversive content. This is the definition of propaganda.

To wit, it is imperative that the goal of enlisting influencer support is not to disguise one’s own influence. This is an ethical consideration that separates public engagement designed to inform from malicious intent. Given the natural distrust in both government and influencers, practitioners need to get ahead of this narrative at the early stages of the implementation phase. Any attempt to obscure the relationship or even the mere lack of effort to be as transparent as possible will be construed as malpractice. Since using an is a common tactic employed by purveyors of disinformation, there are a number of companies that now specialize in this type of activity. These are best to avoid at all costs.

Given the inherent skepticism of government messaging efforts, skirting the ethics question lends itself to easy allegations of peddling malign influence or disinformation. This will undoubtedly result in the lack of receptiveness to the message, or worse, provide fodder for counter-messaging campaigns. Adherence to higher ethical standards and established legal frameworks is what separates the malign from the benign, a campaign to inform and influence positively from an attempt to manipulate and propagandize. As skepticism continues to rise, process fouls will automatically spoil the value of any message. This elevates ethical considerations beyond simply what is right. Maintaining strong ethical standards is an essential element to designing a successful engagement strategy.

In summary, before proceeding with the social media influencer program, the following questions should be evaluated to achieve the best results:

  • What policy does this program support?
  • What challenges prevent this policy from taking hold? What problem is this policy seeking to fix?
  • What are the advantages for society if this policy is successful?
  • What action is required for this policy to be successful?
  • Who needs to take that action?
  • What prevents these individuals from taking that action? What message do they need to hear to spur them to action?
  • Where can these individuals be found? What platforms do they engage on?
  • What messengers are seen as credible to these individuals or communities on this issue?

By taking these questions into consideration, public engagement practitioners and strategists will be better equipped to design successful social media influencer campaigns. Ben Franklin was not the spark that led to the War of Independence, but perhaps he was the first burning tree that sustained the revolution. Through him, the spark that set off the rebellion was allowed to grow—an unmistakable turning point in United States history. When Franklin was initially dispatched to France, there was little hope the spark would become a blaze. Franklin helped set the conditions for success, and the rest is history.

As government public engagement professionals, we are often tasked with the impossible. But impossible odds need not equate with predictable failure. By implementing strong planning processes and working within established ethical and legal frameworks, governments can partner with social media influencers to inform and better engage key audiences. A spark in the ocean will never start a forest fire. Practitioners must first assess the environment to ensure the conditions are right before striking the first match. And for those who find themselves in the middle of the ocean, starting a forest fire simply cannot be the end goal. Instead, find the right pebble—and start a tsunami.

[1] Duncan J. Watts, Peter Sheridan Dodds, & John Deighton served as editors, and Tulin Erdem served as an associate editor for this article. (2007). Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation. The Journal of Consumer Research34(4), 441–458.