Queen’s Gambit Accepted: Perception and Influence in Micro Public Relations

Data from IBISWorld indicates that the Public Relation industry has been growing presumptively over the past five years. The 14 billion dollar industry declined just 12 percent due to Covid-19 in 2020. Increasingly the use of Perception marketing and PR and outreach continues to grow. Social media has become a big part of that as public relations professionals role out grassroots campaigns to sway the minds and hearts of users around the world.

Increasingly, social media is becoming a hot spot for major marketing and social campaigns aimed at growing interest, sales and influencing behavior. According to the Digital Marketing Institute, 49 percent of consumers depend on influencer recommendations. The influencer marketing industry is estimated at 10 billion dollars in 2020, whereas just 3 years ago it was only $2 billion. In fact, statistics show that teens overwhelmingly trust online influencers over celebrities.

To be sure, industry has taken notice; with executives increasing their influencer marketing budgets across industries. Not only has industry taken cues, but also special interest groups, social engineers and government. But what does that mean for consumers of media? It means that social proof has a greater influence on buyer choice and social behavior than manufactured commercials and high paid celebrities .

It goes further. In 2020, US political publication, Politico became privy to a 57-page government Senatorial memo detailing anti-Chinese rhetoric, strategy and talking points. However, the rhetoric appeared (sometimes verbatim) not only in official communications, but online forums, social media and elsewhere. Negative ad campaigns are a staple of the American political system and par for the course in adversarial engagements at home and abroad.

Negative ad campaigns have grown in popularity and may target anything from a fledgling grassroots movement to a major public functionary–and as was the case for China, an entire country. Perhaps the most effective ad campaigns to date are social media-based, influencer disruption campaigns. These negative PR campaigns are tricky, because they target a particular idea or group but do so via influencers (both established and those introduced specifically for the campaign).

Often these paid or faux influencers begin positively within a specific group or interest area, but over time they reverse course and demonize the group, movement or interest area that they initially joined with enthusiasm. Some join as critics and shock jocks effectively detailing critical conversations and momentum. A kind of PR Trojan horse or sleeper-cell campaign aimed at undermining the tenets or validity of an idea, industry, product, group or movement. They help to disillusion adherents and stall forward movement.

But PR is not just for companies, political campaigns and governments. Sometimes more nefarious actors use public relations tactics as well. An 2017 article released by Vox Media, detailed how the alternative-right was using social media to influence and disrupt. There are no official figures on if or how such participants were paid, but the use of social behavioral techniques helped such operatives push their own agenda.

Atlantic Magazine Writer and social media influencer, Vann Newkirk discovered that racially-motivated trolls were posing as as black Americans online. According to Newkirks NPR interview and the accompanying article, the trend has been growing precipitously over the years. Doubtless, the trend not only exists for black Americans social media communities, but other goups, movements and interest areas where trolls attempt to influence through a fabricated social proof.

Whether the influencer, troll or deviant is paid or not, these PR campaigns seek to move the needle through almost any means. If not television then social media and where possible, ads and other mediums that reinforce ideas. These and other forms of media “storm” populations toward acceptance or normalization–and in some cases disruption.

As technology advances, so too will the strategies and techniques of those who seek to control the narrative. In 2020 the US Senate Intelligence Committee issued a final report on its Russia election probe. After a lengthy investigation into whether Russia tempered with the US elections via social media in 2016 it was determined there was insufficient evidence to move forward with punitive measures.

While the possibility of such an undertaking might seem dubious for some; it is not beyond the purview of those who see the value in such campaigns. In 2010, US government officials funded a fake social media platform called ZunZuneo. It was hailed as the “Cuban Twitter” funded by USAID and introduced by faux companies with the intention of inciting unrest and a “Cuban Spring,” according to declassified documents and a report in Time Magazine.

The tell-tale signs of a negative or disruption PR campaigns is that they seek to create doubt in the minds of proponents, influence behaviors that act against the goal or best interest of the group, create discord and divide coworking groups or otherwise cast a negative light. It is evident, public relations is used in both positive and negative ways. Political campaign managers not only seek to manage the image and messaging of their candidate, but also malign or inautgenticate their opponents.

PR experts often use social media, through the use of influencers, offers a tantalizing grassroots element to public relations campaigns that was not formerly available. In conjunction with other more established modes and mediums, social media has been an effective new tool in the PR toolbox. Some influencers can be paid but some may need to be created–inlisting the help of actors, trained staff or military personnel depending on the medium and the purpose. The individual(s) may contribute for the duration of the campaign or only briefly, helping to add a dissenting voice; provoke a crisis or add negative perception. So the next time you connect to your favorite influencer, you may want to check if they have a military or law enforcement background.

Campaigns of almost every ilk can be conducted in this manner, often using various voices, perspectives and influencers to peddle everything from self-nihliation, counter-culter social practices, negative group commentary, product adoption and more.

Public relations continues to evolve; and increasingly, executives, consultants and professionals in this sphere are being called on to not only manage a brand image, but to destroy them. Nations, companies, groups and social movements will need to be more savvy and seek the counsel of a communications professional who can and will provide counterstrategy should a negative campaign be launched.

The advance of technology and behavioral science now requires politicians, companies, social groups and others to become more sophisticated in their ability to identify, counter and understand PR Campaigns of negativity and disruption.

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