Influence, credibility and advocacy

Judy Gombita points me in the direction of ‘s post which argues that “Google has become an especially telling measure of one’s reputation and standing”.

This implies search engine optimization () should be the primary focus of public relations.   Indeed, the only measure of success is:

(n.): Google credibility. What someone sees when they Google your name, business, product, organization or whatever. It’s an increasingly important measure of legitimacy and how seriously someone will take you.

This links into the ongoing discussion around .  Having “” is one thing, but what information emerges, who originated it, and what credibility do they have?  These have to be key to ensure that your G cred is positive rather than negative.

So far the various attempts to evaluate PR influencers online have focused on different aspects: 

  • Edelman’s (which has generated over 90 comments so far) considers activity in blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on – making it more a popularity contest. 
  • Flemming Madsen of considers PR bloggers’ influence in terms of which is interesting, but doesn’t really tell you much more than who is being referenced.  It does, however, distinguish influence from popularity.
  • The Friendly Ghost’s  draws on rankings such as Google, Yahoo and Technorati
  • The considers Google and Technorati rankings, bloglines subscribers, and a unique Tod factor assessment of content for marketing blogs.

These lists highlight the difficulty of focusing on influence in the fairly narrow domain of  PR (or public relations) as opposed to those who are also commenting on copywriting, marketing, politics, journalism, media, news, technology, internal communications, education or a special sector (in my case, automotive). 

As individuals, most of us write about what interests us, and link to other people we know, find stimulating or even annoying.  These are unlikely to be exclusively in the PR micro-blogosphere.

Of course, from a professional public relations perspective, it would be helpful to be able to create measures to identify key “influencers”.  It is also interesting academically and personally to reflect on the issue – not least for identifying new people to read – but do any of these approaches really reveal who is influential in online PR thinking? 

I don’t think so.  The beauty of online is that anyone can write an interesting post that can stimulate responses and start a debate.  Chances are that someone will pick up on it (probably Judy) and make a connection from which other strands of discussion emerge.  They may agree or disagree, with opinions that might be informative, entertaining, even persuasive.  As high ranking as might be (that’s another link I’ve provided), does that mean what Rubel writes is really influential?

We also need to consider the credibility of any source.  Wikipedia may be popular, have high Google juice, be well referenced, even be influential – but is it credible?  As Chris Anderson argues in , Wikipedia can be very reliable – and also fallible (that applies to too– yet another link).  Anderson cites on Wikipedia:

It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts.

As in the classic theories there are many reasons for credibility – as a result of authority or expertise, or as “people like me”.  Someone may an “A-list blogger” or at least you’ve heard of them.  Sources may relate to, or be recommended by, someone you trust (possible Google).  Or just be – as per Wikipedia.

In ‘s terminology, PR practitioners are on the “Law of the Few” hunt to identify those with the power to influence others.  They may be a (source of information), a (a hub of social introductions) or a (charismatic negotiator).

They used to be journalists – now we’re not so sure of their influence.  The Few have become the Many online – but we’re still looking for the Few. 

One problem in reducing analysis of “influencers” to algorithms to find the Few is that links and ratings don’t help identify advocacy.  Isn’t that what we are really looking for in PR and marketing – people who will help advocate our position, promote our products/services, co-orientate to our messages? 

Ironically, in doing this, public trust of journalists (and others such as celebrities) as advocates has reduced.  The public increasingly believe, often rightly, that PR’s power and influence reduces the ability of those targeted to offer a credible recommendation.

We see it with views of motoring media and environmental issues.  Some people are appalled by the views and behaviour of Jeremy Clarkson; whilst for others is rated highly.   Automotive PR practitioners face the dilemma of engaging with those who love the show; whilst recognising concerns about its negative influence – especially when communicating a responsible position for the industry on environmental matters.

Google may be the world’s greatest influencer, it may even have credibility if it brings up useful sources.  But this would be affected if it is seen to be manipulated by SEO and PR.  In any case, Google is not an advocate (unlike Clarkson if you are a fan); it doesn’t make recommendations – you only trust it to find information, not to offer up any quality assessment of its discoveries.

Real influencers have credibility and can be trusted as advocates – even if only in a narrow field.  David Phillips proved this when telling an intern at a US PR consultancy:

If what Chevy is doing is interesting to me it will come via an expert practitioner blogger (in this case probably Heather Yaxley) through my RSS feed. By then the content will have been both edited and evaluated by a trusted third party. I will pull it from her.

Google may well be “word of mouth on steroids”, evidence of your popularity or hyperactivity online.  As Stein argues, its “list of online citations is the new 21st century resume” and where others go to find “informed voices”.

Does this apply to those in PR who rank highly on the above lists.  Are they really influential rather than popular?  Or are they like Wikipedia – salient, popular, sometimes reliable, sometimes rubbish?

Where does this all lead us?  Is the search for the Few relevant – especially if our aim is to then taint their influence and credibility as advocates?. 

Perhaps we need to think more about supporting the Many who may be influential for different reasons.  Yes, search engines and “key influencers” are important and we need to monitor what they reveal about ourselves and our clients. 

But more than that, we should be pro-active and ensure strong values and good behaviour underpins the flow of positive Google juice from credible sources.

For our particular area (or organisation, in the case of internal communications) there may be a Few influential sources but we should avoid impacting on their credibility by abusing the power of PR – and be aware that their influence can negatively affect our credibility.  That applies equally to Google, MicroPersuasion, Jeremy Clarkson or some strange cat-blogger with a zillion friends who Twitters, is regularly linked and ranks highly on Technorati.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “Influence, credibility and advocacy”

  1. Heather,

    Excellent review. As far as our Social Media Index is concerned you are right in that it tends towards the reach or footprint approach (popularity), but some of the inputs (like technorati) that we used include within them a form of rating (if only in inbound links in this case). And as you know, we put it up as a ‘first bash’. It’s not the finished article and I doubt there will ever be such a thing because of all the things you list in this post. We are going to take it on a stage though and see if we can get more of the ‘influence’ rather than just ‘reach’ metrics in. It does feel like wrestling an octopus though I have to say.

  2. Great article, Heather. I wrote some of the same ideas myself today, but I see you are much better read than me. The citation analysis seems like a very fruitful area for future study, though automatic systems of any kind seem dubious, as you suggest in some ways.

  3. Regarding the “influence” aspect of your post:

    After spending far too much time thinking about the nature of influence, particularly as it relates to these authority lists that are springing up like mushrooms, I’ve come this far in my unscientific observations and determination:

    – Based on what I’ll call conventional wisdom, the authors/blogs I consider authoritative rarely seem to make the cut. (Note: my employment and personal interests revolve around public relations, marketing and lifelong education; the authors and blogs I focus on reflect the same.)
    – In many cases the high influence quotient of early adopters has outlived current market value regarding original content and unbiased viewpoints (i.e., you can do it first or you can do it better…why is it that objective discourse and independent thought often don’t rise to the top and receive the recognition, respect and exposure they deserve in social media?).
    – Individuals considered influential in social media very often do not wield the same authority in more conventional arenas (i.e., media, academia, establishments, organized groups and public opinion); the reverse is also true.
    – There are various types of influence, including “wide” and “deep.” Which is superior?
    – As detailed very thoroughly by Jenn Mattern over at Naked PR, by its very nature of being self-publishing/self-selecting, social media makes it quite easy for knowledgeable people to “game” the influence factor (one example would be listing the posts of oneself and friends in Digg and del.icio.us, regardless of intrinsic worth).
    – The discipline to which social media most naturally belongs remains unclear to me; it doesn’t help matters when lists purporting to be about one discipline include groupings of people who work in a multitude of areas (e.g., advertising, marketing, organizational communications, public relations and technology). Unless, of course, social media is gaining distinction as a separate discipline (of which I’m not convinced).
    – In addition to viewing blogs and posts in isolation regarding worth and influence, I think it is time well spent to research credentials (i.e., how significant a player is he or she in the offline world) and determine existing liaisons and motivations of each self-publishing author.

    Heather, it is equal parts gratifying and humbling to be declared an influencer by you. I think the truth lies closer to me playing an active (and welcomed) role in introducing you to information and sources that you hadn’t discovered on your own. But what you do with the information (analytical and objective, creative and original, with dollops of wit and generosity in being open to alternative viewpoints), and whatever relationships you end up cultivating (active or passive) remains entirely of your own making. I respectfully (and with much liking) return the influencer salute back tenfold.

  4. Judy,

    Nothing quite like a bit of mutual admiration of course…

    You make some very interesting observations – I agree that influence is very personal and our interests, experiences, prejudices, etc all contribute to what will influence us as individuals. From the influencer perspective – as you indicate there are similarly likely to be many contributing factors, which could be mapped out I am sure and include online and offline aspects.

    The point about the high influence quotient of early adopters is relevant online, since information most certainly no longer flows in a linear direction (if it ever did) as is proposed by Rogers’ classic curve.

    Are you also saying that popularity gets in the way of quality discussion in social media? Doesn’t it depend where you come into a discussion as online we can pick up various threads and follow them in different directions, building our own interpretation of an issue and influence.

    On your other points about breadth/depth of influence, “gaming” ratings and linking social media to a particular discipline, they all are valid aspects. In terms of “gaming”, I suppose some people have always sought to distort their influence, through self-publicity if nothing else. Was Bernays really that influential in his day?

    Regarding “ownership” of social media, I wonder if we are again trying to fit a 20th century perspective. Perhaps one of the reasons why it is so hard to differentiate some of those disciplines is that they emerged on the basis of how organisations needed to function “back then”. Once it was all publicity, then with mass media, press relations and advertising emerged. Then all the other sub-divisions of marketing communications – as well as specialisms of public relations. Now it is maybe merging again (integrated/corporate comms) whilst also splitting into new areas as a result of online developments (SEO etc).

    Although social media may not be a separate discipline of its own (debatable), it has changed the communications landscape and so perhaps throws up different ways of looking at functions within organisations and as professions.

    From the perspective of these lists, they are perhaps too blunt a tool – isn’t the question more about who is influential about what to whom at what time to what effect?

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