“If a certain influencer suddenly becomes famous, we must have the ability to get to her before anyone else”
Published in May-Jun 2022
AURORA: What has been the impact of social media in the way the PR function is conducted? FARESHTEH ASLAM: Tremendous. When I first went into public relations in 2010 it was pretty much a matter of getting in touch with print journalists and inviting them to events – if they thought it interesting enough to engage their readers, they would give us coverage in print. There was no question of buying space. It was traditional PR built on the strength of the idea we were executing.
A: Getting press coverage was, and still is, difficult given that newspapers are not keen on providing free publicity.
FA: When you have a strong idea like the Lux Style Awards, you do get a lot of coverage because it involves and interests so many people. The same can be said of the Pond’s Miracle Journey.
A: When did digital start making an impact?
FA: We began working with digital platforms, such as Facebook, around 2013-2014; that is when we started to get the hang of the medium. However, the explosion came with Instagram. That was when the whole game changed. Bloggers suddenly became Instagrammers. Pakistan is not a country where people read a lot, and the moment people got a picture and a caption, everything changed. Instagrammers began to acquire a following that soon went into the millions and companies and brands were very happy to engage with them, and as a result, the way we worked changed. We had to tailor everything in such a way that it would involve Instagrammers. Then YouTube came along and Snapchat and now there is TikTok and SnackVideo. Just about every day a new app is hurled at us and we have to quickly include them in our PR plans. The traditional PR model of developing strong content and introducing the media to it has flown out of the window. Today, you cannot even think of doing this, mainly because hot on the heels of all these influencers emerging on the scene, the paid model came in and suddenly, a journalist, who would never dream of asking for money to print something, would become an Instagrammer and charge to post it. It is all done openly and in a very business-like way, because that is the model. That is the way this world functions.
A: So it became a matter of approaching influencers rather than the media?
FA: Yes. We would approach an Instagrammer and say that we were having a launch and XYZ big celeb will be attending and would they like to come. He or she would agree and ask, “What’s my story?” We gave them a brief and they would create a story around it, post it and charge us for it. The point was that he or she had those millions of followers the brand wanted to reach out to.
A: Is that because the mindset is different?
FA: It was often the same person – a journalist turned into an Instagrammer/influencer. The entire model is different and we had to quickly scramble and get used to that way of thinking – formerly we had to work very hard on content creation to garner interest in the media, now it is, “Here is the money, and do what we ask.”
A: Do you think this is a better model?
FA: It is the global model. Do I like it? No. In fact, my interest has gone down because it’s just a transaction; there is no creativity involved, but this is the way PR is headed. Of course, people are becoming a little more discerning and good influencers are starting to push back - if it’s not in line with the way they live their life, or what they believe in, they will say no. It is an evolving ecosystem.
A: The bottom line is that the medium is the influencer; this is what is driving PR.
FA: Totally. Going forward, there are companies that are managing their influencers robotically. They don’t engage with them personally, they do it mechanically.
FA: With apps and software. The way we work is that we brief the influencer and tell them what has to be done; in the mechanical world, they just receive an email telling them what to do, when and on which platform.
A: Why would they do it?
FA: Because they are paid. This is where it is headed. There is no emotion in that transaction; it is very cold blooded. “This is what has to be done and this is the rate we have fixed for you,” and 20 days after they have posted what is required, they receive a cheque.
A: Is this also happening in Pakistan?
FA: It is happening as we speak.
HARIS SHEIKH: Automation is a good thing to some extent. But it is not sustainable in our culture. If we do not speak to, or ask questions of each other, it becomes meaningless. If I am ready to do anything, just because I receive an email and get paid, there is no purpose behind it. FA: Human interaction lets you set some boundaries, such as this is a no-go and this is something that you can do. Very often, influencers will read the email and still add one or two lines which could make the whole endeavour irrelevant and unusable. By constantly talking to them about the content, we end up getting a meaningful piece of content.
A: Do you do background checks to ensure the influencer doesn’t have any skeletons in the cupboard?
FA: No. Of course, if in their real life they end up doing something stupid, then we don’t use them.
A: Don’t followers baulk at the idea that the person they are following is paid to promote a piece of content? Doesn’t it affect the influencer’s credibility?
FA: It is up to the follower to figure that out. They probably know that when an influencer is pushing the latest Eid jora, the person has probably been paid, but they buy into it because the way it is done is authentic. Also, I would say that nine out of 10 times, an influencer will not do something that goes against their own grain. They will say no, because they know their followers don’t expect them to do this.
A: So the idea that you can actually get an influencer to endorse a brand without being paid is a myth?
FA: Doesn’t exist!
A: There has to be a measure of talent to convince someone to engage with content that is basically sponsored.
FA: Yes, to actually act out what he or she is feeling and make it look natural and therefore not paid – and this is what a good influencer will do. Something like: “Today, I visited Dolmen and look what I found…” And then she will weave a story around the product and make it very believable.
A: How many people of that calibre are out there?
FA: Very few.
HS: It depends on the SEC you are targeting; the content has to be relatable to the audience, and it depends on what you are selling and how you are selling it. A content creator may go to a mall and show their audience what they bought. Alternatively, they may say they are going to eat at such and such place, and later tell their followers what they ate and how good it was. There are different ways to create content that does not look like it has been paid for.
A: Is the selection of the influencer driven purely by the number of followers they have?
FA: Yes. PR agencies have to know the strength (stats) of each blogger and craft stories for them. The difference is that whereas a journalist would never agree to write a set piece, influencers do not question the content they are given. A lot depends on the brand. A mass brand will want a mass following, a niche brand would be very happy with fewer but more targeted followers.
A: Does the number of followers dictate how much an influencer is paid?
HS: YouTube is a long format medium while Instagram is comparatively short and for each medium the rates are different as are the number of followers. The engagement percentages of the influencers also vary; in some cases, it is two to three percent, in others 10 to 12%.
A: Has becoming an influencer become a full time profession?
FA: It is a full-time job.
HS: It is not just one person; they have teams creating content for them; who write, research, manage and shoot their content. They have studio setups, offices, legal and admin backup. Everything. And they have to keep posting new content every day – not just brand content – to keep their followers engaged and stay relevant.
A: Do you devise different strategies for different platforms?
FA: After we receive the brand brief and the key performance indicators – is it purely visibility or are there other criteria – the team goes into a huddle in order to determine the strategy and identify the relevant platforms – and there is so much to choose from. We need to pick up on trends very quickly; if a certain influencer suddenly becomes famous, we must have the ability to get to her before anyone else. It is all part of the game.
A: Do you ever work in tandem with the advertising agencies?
FA: Never. Their medium is television and YouTube. They tell a story in approximately 30 or 40 seconds. What we do is totally different.
A: Is there not some kind of unity in terms of the brand message?
FA: None, unless there is a brand message in the ad, which we then amplify. However, when you take the story to a social media app, it has to be tailor-made accordingly. The story has to be crafted in a way that sits with the influencer’s personality.
HS: PR adds human value to a story. Language is very important in PR and it depends on the influencer because it has to be organic. With advertising the language is fixed; with PR it depends on the influencer.
FA: I would say that we work at opposite ends of the spectrum.
A: Would you say that social media PR accounts for 80% of what Talking Point PK does?
FA: Yes, if not more.
HS: Brands want to go where the eyeballs are. Print numbers are declining and younger audiences are not interested in TV anymore, they are all on social media.
A: Is social media PR considered to be an ongoing activity for a brand, as in the message is constantly iterated or do other variables come into the equation?
HS: The ripple effect is important. We often work with brands which have been in the market for the longest time and we have to create recall every day, either with the same message or creating a new one. At other times, brands just want to boost their sales and ask us to develop a three-month campaign, for example.
FA: It is more than just the brand in itself; a brand will want visibility on Mother’s Day, Women’s Day, Eid, and so on.
A: Are multinationals more inclined to use social media for their PR compared to the national companies?
FA: Not at all. We have a growing number of local clients. They are very agile; unlike the multinationals, they are unencumbered by rules and the need to obtain global approvals. They are quick to hop on to new things; some local brands catch on really fast and often gain the first mover’s advantage.
A: Does the strength of an idea still apply like it used to, or has that notion been somewhat diluted?
FA: It occasionally still applies. A lot depends on what kind of product we are selling and the objective.
HS: It depends on many factors. The brand, the team, the mindset. If the idea is solid, it will obviously have the potential to go further. However, if the idea is comparatively mediocre, we will still make it solid with our communication.
A: How does the aspect of PR that deals with reputation and crisis management work now?
FA: That would be more on the lines of the way traditional PR operated. Although they are almost extinct, press releases would be required in case of a crisis and you would engage with the traditional media, but even then the press release is more likely to go on their social media handles rather than in print.
A: What are the emerging trends in terms of consumer expectations that brands need to be aware of and communicate through their PR?
FA: Brands that have a purpose do better than brands that wander around aimlessly, that is a given. Brands are moving towards being very politically correct. Kids these days are very particular about things you wouldn’t think would matter to them. They are very clear about certain things, especially what concerns their future.
Fareshteh Aslam was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. We acknowledge and thank Haris Sheikh, Head of Media, Talking Point PK, for his contribution to the conversation. For feedback: email@example.com