Partnering with an influencer in a mutually beneficial arrangement to raise brand awareness or promote products and services can be very profitable for businesses of all types and sizes.
Last year, I wrote an article about the value of influencer marketing and why SMEs might want to consider using influencers to raise their profile and increase their reach, with a caution about the importance of choosing the right influencer and what can go wrong if you don’t.
In this article, I’m going to share some advice on what to do if something goes awry with your influencer partnership in a way that might harm your brand; for instance, if your influencer becomes embroiled in a controversy, aligns themselves with a cause that is contradictory to your brand ethos, or shares opinions that cast your brand in a poor light.
Read on to learn what to do if your influencer goes rogue, and how to protect your brand in the aftermath of an influencer scandal.
What can influencers do for brands?
Influencer marketing enables businesses to identify and reach out to popular, well-regarded individuals within specific niches, who have established authority within their field and garnered a large, loyal following who are receptive to hearing the messages the influencer posts.
By partnering with an appropriate and plausible influencer, businesses can get their brand or the goods that they sell seen by a potentially large audience of prospective buyers, who place value on the influencer’s endorsement of the brand or product in question and so, are more likely to consider choosing it as a result.
If you are an active user of social media (either on behalf of your brand or for personal use) you will almost certainly have seen multiple examples of influencer marketing in action already, and well-planned and executed influencer campaigns can result in a huge boost for the brands that launch them.
A great example of a successful influencer marketing campaign is DJ Khaled’s partnership with Mad Intense Gum on Snapchat (and it would be difficult to find a better example of a brand and influencer persona that are so well matched in terms of their public image and demographic crossover), resulting in each Snap posted for the brand receiving an average of over three million views.
Another example is luxury jewellery brand Tiffany and Co.’s partnership with millennial travel influencer Jack Morris to raise awareness of the brand’s eco-credentials and of course, to incentivise sales of their products. This is a particularly interesting choice of influencer for a high-end brand, as at a glance, aspirational lifestyle products and an engaging and accessible young man often referred to as “the boy next door type” might not appear to be an obvious match.
Yet this campaign was again highly successful thanks to its unique angle, resulting in an 8% increase in customer engagement rates for the brand across their partner content.
Finally, American Express tackled the challenges of marketing credit cards by partnering with fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni to highlight a lifestyle rather than the brand itself. This resulted in almost four million annual engagements with the influencer’s branded content; just the single example posted below generated over 350k engagements for American Express on its own.
These are just a few of many examples of successful influencer marketing campaigns that paid off; but if your influencer goes rogue or your relationship with them sours, things can go very wrong very quickly. Next, I’ll look at why this is.
How your brand image and your influencer’s image become inextricably linked to each other
It is important to consider the full ramifications of partnering with an influencer, both on a macro level and pertaining to the specific influencer you select too.
Just as your brand can benefit from the endorsement of a plausible influencer with a good reputation and a positive public image, so too can it be seriously harmed in its turn if your influencer’s reputation takes a nosedive, or if their future content contradicts your brand’s image and ethos. Worse, if your influencer throws you under the bus with a poorly thought out throwaway comment about your goods or even a deliberate attempt to sabotage sales if your relationship sours, the full extent of the damage that this can cause can be hard to quantify.
When you choose an influencer to work with you are relying upon their own plausibility, reach and influence becoming tied to that of your brand; and this is a two-way street. Just as an influencer can be harmed by partnering with a brand whose morals and ethics contradict their own or that commits an epic public fail (like Bella Hadid and Kendal Jenner’s promotion of the ill-fated Fyre Festival), so too can your brand suffer alongside of your influencer if they fall out of favour or court controversy, either deliberately or accidentally.
An influencer can potentially turn their own followers and the public at large against you if they choose to, or if they post or do something problematic (even if this doesn’t pertain specifically to your brand at all) which is of course something that any business will be keen to avoid.
Choosing the right influencer and avoiding problems further down the line
There is an inherent level of risk involved in partnering with an influencer, because they are still independent individuals and not bots or controllable mouthpieces that you can direct or manage to a great extent outside of the terms of your agreements with them.
Some influencer partnerships also give the influencer in question a lot of freedom in terms of how they promote or showcase your content, to add authenticity to their message and maintain their public plausibility.
You cannot know when you first set up an influencer partnership if something they say or do at some unspecified point in the future might come back to bite your brand in the ass – but by making the right choice of influencer and being clear about your expectations and what the partnership will involve, you can significantly reduce the chances of issues arising later on.
For an influencer to hold value for a brand, they need to serve the appropriate niche, have a large enough following of suitable demographic targets, and hold some sway with their audience; but they also need to be a fairly safe bet in terms of their actions and activities, and even ethics and attitude.
This doesn’t mean that edgy, polarising or controversial influencers are best avoided, and these can potentially be the most effective influencers of all for some brands. However, you do need to perform your due diligence and establish how self-aware your influencer is and how conscientious they are about protecting their brand partnerships before you align your brand with them.
Influencers that have already worked with other brands successfully and that have a well-established track record of posting sound content backed up by a consistent public image are a safer bet than relative unknowns or influencers that are something of a wildcard, as are those whose own personal ethics correlate with those of your brand.
Knowing what to expect and knowing that you’re coming from the same place in terms of what you want to achieve and what is important to you can help to avoid irreparable damage if you and your influencer diverge on something in the future, even if this occurs long after your active partnership has ended.
Additionally, this may seem self-evident but is worth mentioning anyway; make sure that you and your influencer have an airtight legal contract in place outlining expectations on both sides, exactly what the influencer will do, and vitally, what they will not do when it comes to handling their partnership with your brand.
This is not a total failsafe, but it is vital to ensure that you don’t leave your partnership wide open to potential abuse if the influencer’s attitudes or standpoints change, or you have a falling out further down the road.
What could possibly go wrong?
Just how badly can things go awry if your influencer goes rogue and posts, says or does something stupid or malicious? Unfortunately, the sky is virtually the limit.
If your influencer criticises or speaks negatively about your brand or one of its products, they’re pretty much going to turn all of those fans and followers who might have considered buying them against you, which can easily form the foundations of a lifelong dislike or distrust of your brand in the minds of all of those prospects.
However, your influencer doesn’t even have to mention your business or products, or even be involved in an active partnership with you at the time in order to cause damage to your reputation and compromise sales – leaving you with a messy and costly clean-up operation in their wake.
If your influencer aligns themselves with a controversial cause, is embroiled in a scandal, or has politics or viewpoints that are unpopular, offensive or highly polarising, they might take your brand down with them as they fall from grace.
As I have mentioned, when your brand is associated with an influencer in the minds of your prospects, they become tied together, and so anything an influencer says and does also reflects on the brands that they are associated with.
If your influencer reveals themselves to be a surprise anti-vaxxer, conspiracy theorist or having racist views, a significant number of people who associate the influencer with your brand will assume that your brand shares these views, even if this is patently untrue, and/or the influencer’s problematic or controversial content was accidental rather than malicious.
Additionally, influencers – like celebrities – live out most of their lives in the public spotlight, which means that even the things that they do in their personal life impact upon their likability and plausibility too.
If you partner with an influencer to promote a brand or product based on the influencer’s family values and they’re later found to be a serial cheater embroiled in a very public scandal that plays out messily across social media, the potential embarrassment that this can cause to your brand is likely to be intense.
Next, I’ll look at a couple of real-life examples of influencers who compromised their partner brands as a result of their actions.
Influencers that have negatively impacted upon their partner brands
Perhaps the best-known and most memorable example of an influencer throwing a whole busload of partner brands under the wheels can be found in the cautionary tale of controversial YouTube influencer Logan Paul. Paul became the subject of a large outpouring of public vitriol in 2017 when he posted a highly distasteful, disrespectful and exploitative video of an encounter with a Japanese suicide victim.
Paul’s own unique brand of humour can fairly be described as “not for everyone,” but even given the 15 million-plus subscribers that clearly appreciated his controversial takes on life, this particular video simply went too far by any normal person’s standards.
YouTube promptly suspended Paul’s ad revenue streams and all of the brands that had previously partnered with him rushed to disassociate themselves from both his viewpoint and personal brand as a whole, despite Paul’s later apology for the insensitivity of his post.
But you can’t un-ring the bell, and the damage that these partnerships caused to the brands associated with him is likely to be felt by them for many years to come – such as Maverick Apparel, who threatened legal action against Paul on the basis of his wearing one of their branded hoodies in the video in question, even though they were not official brand partners of Pauls.
Another well-known influencer furore comes to us courtesy of popular YouTube gaming streamer PewDiePie; and whilst this is one influencer whose content is already widely regarded to be controversial and polarising, his recent faux-pas involved simply recommending another creator’s video.
Said recommendation was highly problematic because it was hosted on a channel well known for posting anti-Semitic content.
PewDiePie had already lost a lucrative partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios as a result of sharing Nazi imagery within previous videos, and of course, for a large, clean-cut family brand like Disney to be associated with such content is hugely harmful to public perception of the brand as a whole.
These are just a couple of the largest and best-publicised influencer fails of the last couple of years, but they are by no means the only ones.
How to approach things if your influencer’s actions have a negative knock-on effect on your brand
So, what do you do if the very worst happens and your influencer throws you under the bus, or goes down in flames and takes your brand with them? First of all, whilst you will need to react quickly, haste is not your friend here.
Leaping to your own defence or rushing to disassociate yourself with your influencer (or even criticise them or their problematic content directly in an attempt to salvage your reputation) might well be the best course of action, but you need to take a breath and look at the big picture and the fine details before you go out on a limb.
Just as what your influencer says or does in the first instance can’t be undone or backtracked on later on, neither can your own response; so make sure it’s solid and don’t go off half-cocked in your haste to do the right thing.
The first thing you should do is reach out privately to your influencer and talk to them directly about what happened, what their intentions were, and what they expected to happen as a result of their post; as well as of course, how they’re planning to handle things from there.
Your influencer might well have found themselves at the eye of a storm they had no idea was coming and be busily planning how to salvage their reputation and restore public perception of both themselves and their partner brands too.
Whether or not you intend to support them in this is up to you, but you need to know what their plans are either way, either to get on board with their message or so that you can determine the best way to get your own viewpoint across instead.
If your influencer is on the same page as you about things and has a plausible, credible plan to rectify their actions and if relevant, apologise and make amends, the support of your brand may even earn a lot of goodwill from the influencer’s followers and the public too, for having the cojones to do the right thing and not back out when the going gets tough.
This will still likely need to be accompanied by your own statement clarifying your brand’s position and standpoint, whilst also indicating your willingness to stand by the influencer in their attempts to make things right.
However, if you feel that your influencer is insincere, will be perceived as insincere, isn’t going far enough or intends to stand by their initial content, moving to disassociate your brand from them entirely and publish your own statement on the actions you intend to take next will probably be better.
The same is true if your influencer’s position was simply indefensible, or truly represents questionable or problematic viewpoints and morals.
If the situation you are facing involves your influencer portraying your brand in a negative light or saying something detrimental about it, again, your first port of call is the influencer themselves. Did they do this deliberately, or was there a disconnect between your expectations and the influencer’s, was their comment misread, were they trying to be funny and failing?
If the former, you will likely have to go head-to-head against the influencer to balance things out and correct any inaccuracies, claims or complaints made by the influencer, but if the latter, your influencer can and should work very hard to rectify things on your behalf.
If you find that your influencer’s lifestyle, morals, causes or approach as a whole are becoming contentious or problematic by association rather than as a result of their direct actions, disassociating your brand from them is something you should seek to do as soon as possible, before a potential controversy or lack of public goodwill costs you dearly.
In this instance, terminating the partnership quietly and on good terms and perhaps putting out a short public statement to this effect may well be the best approach.
Limiting and repairing the damage in the aftermath of an influencer controversy
Whatever problem your influencer caused you – whether they simply spoke out of turn, deliberately denigrated your brand, aligned themselves with a cause contrary to your own, or fell foul of a scandal in their personal life – the shockwaves of this may be felt by their partner brands for many months.
The wider effect that such incidents have upon brand perception in the minds of the general public can be harder to quantify, and can have a knock-on effect that will potentially last for many years.
You need to get a feel for public opinion in terms of how people feel about the problem itself, the influencer that caused it, and the brands associated with them, in order to know how to address the issue and even what is the best standpoint to take with the end goal of protecting your brand.
Monitor social media and the mainstream press, but ask questions too, and engage with fans and followers to find out what they would like to see both the influencer and the brands behind them do next to put things right.
After you’ve determined your brand’s own stance and viewpoint on the issue and what you want the public to know about your position on the matter, you need to work proactively to limit and repair the damage caused as quickly as possible.
This is not always easy by any means, but if you get it right it can help to restore and even potentially boost public perception of your brand as a result.
If your brand or your products have come under fire, regardless of whether your influencer accidentally or deliberately caused this harm, your goal is to restore and improve perception of them first and foremost.
The right way of tackling this can vary but however you approach things, remember that getting into a public beef with the influencer, coming across as bitter or angry, or making implausible or unproven claims to counteract the damage will only serve to cause you further harm.
Retain a calm, consistent and fact-based approach, highlighting the quality, good points and USPs of what you are offering and correcting any misapprehensions, false or misleading statements or conjecture in a logical, easy to understand manner.
If an influencer has identified and shared a genuine failing or flaw in a product, you will of course want to have words with them about how they used that information and quite possibly seek to end your partnership, but don’t deny or defend it – work to show prospects how you’re using that information to put things right, do better, make improvements, and re-launch.
Even better, if you can get the influencer in question on board to endorse your efforts and show their followers how you’ve fixed the issue or corrected the error, this will go a long way too.
If your influencer has gotten into a controversy that you wish to disassociate yourself with, make this clear – and also make your brand’s viewpoint on the controversy itself crystal clear too, using strong and emotive but objective language to let the public know where you stand.
You can enhance this approach by supporting a cause, charity or campaign that shares your views, demonstrating your brand’s commitment to helping to rectify the damage and prove its credentials in real terms – essentially, putting your money where your mouth is.
If your influencer is themselves trying to rectify the damage to their public image and so, that of their partner brands too and you have decided to support this and stand by them, work with them in demonstrating this to their audience and the wider public, and take steps of your own to once more show that you’re not just paying lip service to salvage your reputation.
Finally, if something your influencer has done in their private life is causing a storm that could harm your brand, you need to make your brand’s own standpoint clear. Whether you end your partnership with the influencer as a result or stick with them, put out a statement to this effect and keep it polite and empathic whilst making your brand’s own stance on the matter unambiguous.
Steer well clear of making personal attacks against the influencer and if relevant, indicate that you wish them well and hold no ill will against them – even if you’re quietly fuming about the impact caused.
Making a good choice of influencer in the first place is the best way to avoid backing the wrong horse or dealing with the aftermath of an influencer gone rogue. Ensuring that you keep an eye on your influencer’s actions and public perception of them throughout the course of your relationship so that you can intervene quickly if things go wrong is the best way to avoid tying your brand up in an influencer scandal further down the line.
If something does go wrong, remember first of all not to do or say anything hasty that you might wish to backtrack on later – much like elephants, social media users never forget when they’ve been wronged!
Talk to your influencer (or their PR team) as soon as possible about what is happening and where they intend to go next – even if you’re so angry you could cheerfully murder them – to ensure that you have all of the necessary information at your disposal to formulate a workable plan of action.
Identify the best approach for your brand to take to clarify its position and standpoint, to put things right or rectify the damage, and be willing to accept feedback and input from the public to assist you in doing this, and to improve perception of your brand’s approach.
Finally, always, always keep things mannerly and civilised, even if your influencer (or their fans, or the public) are not affording you the same courtesy. Even if you’re so deep in the hole you can’t see a way out, coming across badly or unprofessionally, or arguing the toss on semantics or minor niggles simply won’t show you in a good light, and may well worsen or even far surpass the existing damage.