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2023 Elections: What PR Managers, Agencies Need To Know Before Using Influencers In Politics

DJ Switch, Reno Omokri, Portable, Nerfertiti, Davido and Mr. Macaroni are some of the influencers to watch out for in the forthcoming general elections.

Politicians all around the world are constantly in the spotlight. In Nigeria, for instance, no week goes by without any of the frontline political candidates making top trends on Twitter or going viral over something said or not well done on almost all social media platforms.

Each week, agencies and PR managers produce press releases on behalf of their clients in this space to convey all necessary information about their latest projects, campaigns, and initiatives. Indeed, Public Relations is an essential part of political life the world over, though its influence in Nigeria leaves so much to be desired.

There are agencies and individuals who play heavily in this space. Because it’s the role of PR managers to keep their fingers on the pulse and react quickly before anything gets out of control. They are the ones who generate positive attention and take care of politicians’ images. How best can they carry out this function? The use of political influencers on social media, according to experts.

The reason for this is not farfetched. People spend more and more time on social media sharing parts of their daily lives in form of pictures, videos, or text. In addition, the digitization of human communication enables anybody with access to a smartphone to reach huge audiences. These developments illustrate a fundamental shift from one-to-many to many-to-many media communication. So-called influencers are the pioneers in this development, exploring new possibilities to impact communication as well as consumers behaviour.

The rise of political influencers

For many years, these influencers are often not recognised as political actors due to the impact they exert on their followers’ purchase decisions and brand attitudes, which play important roles mostly in marketing and branding.

In this, these influencers can be understood similarly as opinion leaders who occupy a central place within a communication network by maintaining connections to many other individuals and to have the ability to influence them by decoding messages that are disseminated by media or other organisations the influence of influencers often stems from the expertise, they have obtained on a specific topic such as fashion, fitness, traveling, or gaming.

But while for-profit brands have fully embraced the idea of influencers as a public relations tactic, and their use for either thematic or tactical campaigns in Nigeria’s marketing landscape, political communications campaigns have been slow to invest in this new social media terrain.

Observing this, Tosin Balogun, a consummate marketing communications professional who pitches his tent at IMS Advertising as a Strategy Director, notes: “the interesting side of this rise in influencer marketing is how they have penetrated the political landscape, serving as tools to endear political candidates to the electorates. As more Nigerians get on Social media, the channel has become a critical battleground to mould public opinion and set an agenda.

Tosin Balogun Joins IMS Immersion As Strategy Director – Brand Communicator
“The rise of political influencers is a good development as this has created another channel to have political discourse and engagement”- Tosin Balogun, IMS Advertising.

In fact, Tolulope ‘Tolucomms’ Olorundero, an award-winning perception management expert who runs Mosron Communications traces the growth of this trend as far back as 2011 when she revealed that the use of influencers as a strategy for political activism and campaigns in Nigeria gained more grounds after the arguable success of the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests in 2011.

She adds, “The prelude to the 2015 elections also showed the real power that influencers, who are not necessarily key opinion leaders, have in our elections in Nigeria. The same playbook has been adopted now as we count down to #Nigeriadecides2023.

Corroborating, Balogun adds that one of the most successful political campaigns in the history of politics is the “Change” Campaign of 2015. “Aside from the timely and resonant theme of the campaign, influencers were also used to drive the message home to electorates. The influencers used for the campaign were mostly Twitter users with an appreciable following of young people with a demography that cuts across different interests and passion points.

“This is a good development as this has created another channel to have political discourse and engagement. And in a country where more than 60% of the population are under 25 years old, social media engagement, facilitated by influencers will bring politicians closer to the younger demography,” he reasoned.

Tolulope Olorundero (@Tolucomms) / Twitter
“The prelude to the 2015 elections also showed the real power that influencers, who are not necessarily key opinion leaders, have in our elections in Nigeria. The same playbook has been adopted now as we count down to #Nigeriadecides2023.”- Tolulope ‘Tolucomms’ Olorundero, Mosron Communications.

This phenomenon that has been tagged variously as the rise of political influencers is not just a Nigerian phenomenon. This is because, as media has adapted, so have political communication tactics. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to speak on the radio in 1923. Harry S. Truman became the first president to appear on television in 1947. The first White House website was introduced under the Clinton administration in 1994. Presidents and other political candidates have even taken to their own social media profiles to communicate with people. Now, political communication teams have adapted once again to invest in the newest public relations tactic: the use of political influencers.

“Ignore them at your peril”

One of the reasons perception experts cannot afford to ignore the strength of influencers when it comes to politics is because of the ‘youthful constituency’ they ‘command’. The number of completed registrations for Permanent Voter’s Card stood at 12.2 million as of 7 a.m. on August 1, the day after INEC concluded the voter registration exercise, with 8.8 million being youths aged 18 to 34, that is in Nigeria, alone.

According to DataReportal’s July 2022 report, social media activities, the most common medium of exchange and discussion between celebrities and their fans (aged 16 to 64) were highest on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tiktok, and others. A survey conducted by a media agency, We Are Social, revealed that 22 percent of internet users worldwide follow an influencer.

With this, Vincent Makori, Managing Editor of VOA’s daily Africa 54 TV newscast, attributes the rise in the use of influencers in politics particularly to the growth of internet penetration. Using Kenya as an example, he noted that politicians from Kenya recognize that a large percentage of registered voters can be reached online.

“About 50% of registered voters are social media users and a great number are younger people – but at the same time, there are others who do not have a big footprint on social media so politicians like to go out there,” said Makori, adding, “Kenyan politicians like to really be in touch with the people on the campaign trail and enjoy the masses, the podiums and walking out to large crowds.”

Milain Fayulu, a Congolese technology entrepreneur and political science scholar said Congolese politicians understand that over 20 million DRC residents are online and that social media will have an impact on the outcome of the 2023 elections. That, he explained, is why political parties are hiring social media influencers to enhance their campaigns.

“Over 21 million Congolese are online, and out of that number over 98% access social media primarily through their cell phones which means one out of five Congolese are connected online,” said Fayulu, adding “debates are raging online, a number of influencers are hired by political parties and the truth is that fake news travels faster than the truth so different types of factions are trying to harness it in different shapes or forms.”

“The problem that we are seeing today is social media gives players the ability to pay to get their voices heard – which is why factions with the largest amount of resources are able to dominate the public discourse,” said Fayulu. He added “This is why you are seeing political actors leveraging influencers to get their message across which may be detrimental to the organic voice beneficial to democracy.”

“Influencers exert influence over millions of their followers. Ignore their influence at your own peril!” Segun Mcmedal, Mediacraft & Associates.

The rising power of political Influencers is what the immediate past Chairman of the Lagos Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) Segun Mcmedal says is a development that has come to stay, as it is adding value. He opined that every PR professional worth his salt will not ignore them. “There is so much clutter in the media, to be heard, influencer marketing can help any brand including political parties to reach more audiences. Influencers exert influence over millions of their followers. Ignore their influence at your own peril!” he warned.

Davido versus Portable: influencer and repellent

The last gubernatorial election in Osun state, Nigeria, that led to the emergence of Ademola Adeleke as governor-elect readily presents a good ground for evaluating the impact and the right use of influencers in politics. Though, a lot of factors featured in the process played out in Osun, the use of influencers definitely is a case study.

In the last days of electioneering, the two main parties-the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, and the All Progressive Congress, APC, put up spirited efforts aimed at swaying the electorate to their side. Adekunle Adekoya in his Pictures and Pattern Column on Vanguard Newspaper titled “Osun: Influencer and repellent,” wrote about how the two dominant political parties used influencers with differing results at the end of the day.

He revealed that the PDP didn’t have to look too far for an influencer as the high-flying David Adeleke a.k.a. Davido, or OBO, a nephew of Adeleke, was on ground. A crowd-puller at concerts, OBO proved to be a firebrand ticket if the objective is to sway the electorate.

He writes that as a result of PDP’s use of Davido, the competition had to respond. “Sure, the APC responded to the OBO challenge and selected one of the young stars that just grabbed attention, a fellow by the stage name, Portable, or Za-zo.

“His real name is Habeeb Okikiola, and until about 48 months ago, was more or less unknown to the larger public outside the hip-hop and rap music circle. His rap hit, Za-zo, catapulted him into instant stardom and real money. Google puts his net worth at about $130,000. In naira terms, he is currently a multi-millionaire.

“At the APC grand rally, the artiste was doing his thing and he pulled quite a crowd, including youths who were seeing him for the first time. Performing topless in Osogbo, he used the concrete piling at one of the roundabouts in town as stage. Atop the piling was mounted a bust of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

“In the heat of performance, Portable dropped his trousers to his ankles and remained in his boxers. The sight of him, with his weird hairstyle, holding a microphone, with Awolowo’s bust behind him, presented a garish, repulsive spectacle. The picture, uploaded by netizens, went viral and triggered surprise and revulsion.

Portable congratulates Ademola Adeleke after he defeated Governor Oyetola  to win Osun election

“Portable’s show of what many reputation actors term ‘shame’ did not just end there. Some four days after the election, the musician whom the APC paid millions to perform for them turned around to mock the party in a video that has also gone viral. “How did the APC get this wrong? The image of that musician dropping his trousers before the bust of Awolowo at that rally in Osogbo presented very bad optics for the party. It was simply odoriferous….”

Influencers leading in the race to 2023

As the build-up to the general elections in 2023 build-ups, some of these influencers in Nigeria are coming out to play prominently on the political terrain. As it stands, their use and impact may tell significantly on the outcome at the polls. Debo Adebayo, known as Mr. Macaroni is among some of the influencers at the forefront of youth participation in politics ahead of the next election in the country. He is also involved in the conscientization and sensitization of Nigerians ahead of the forthcoming general elections. He is among the breed of influencers who led thousands of Nigerians in protest against police brutality during the #ENDSARS campaign.

These celebrities are in a race to persuade their followers into aligning with their political leanings.

Samuel Perry, a Nigerian comedian, popularly known as Broda Shaggi, with 10.8 million followers on Instagram, had in a viral video skit encouraged his fan base to shun voting apathy come 2023 or face another eight years of suffering.

Nefertiti, who has over 287,000 followers on Twitter, is one of the social media influencers who have laid bare the parties they are rooting for and regularly encourage their followers to support their presidential candidates.

“Peter Obi is a Good Man, that’s why I’m sold out for him. He takes corrections, he is not above mistakes. He is a proper human being: emotionally intelligent, humane & kind, more-so, OBIdient to fatherland. Many may not understand these virtues. WHO WUD BLAME THEM?” she said in a tweet.

Reno Omokri, with 1.9 million followers, tweeted: “The Naira can only rise when we manufacture in Nigeria and buy made in Nigeria. Atiku has said that under his leadership, the Federal Government will patronise everything Nigerian. That is the ONLY way Naira will rise. Vote Atiku if you want a stronger naira.”

Ọláwálé Ọlọ́fọọ̀rọ̀ (Brymo), a music artiste, who has 491,100 followers, is backing Bola Tinubu. “Yet… he’s the one with a plan, we all know that… Let a city boy be president for once!.. never met the man, or anyone who represents, or is acquainted with him, or even his relations and political affiliates – and if we stopped trying to kill them off for being old.”

The ‘reel’ life versus the ‘real’ life

Beyond the good analytics, engagement, and impressions these political influencers can create, there is a need to be careful in picking one for your candidate or party. Clearly, the Portable debacle at Osogbo is a wake-up call for reputation managers and organisations to interrogate what they look out for in choosing influencers. Akin Olaniyan in a post he made on Facebook on what he titled “The Limits of Influencer Marketing” notes that not all people who qualify as celebrities can and should be used as influencers for any reason, noting that there is a difference between ‘reel’ life and ‘real’ life.

“In their world, there is a ‘reel’ life, the one they invest heavily to show their followers and the ‘real life,’ which should be a far more accurate measure of their street credibility.” Akin Olaniyan, The ChatterHouse.

In fact, Olorundero’s perspective perhaps, highlights the mistake perception management experts make in choosing influencers. “Perhaps my single objection is the modus operandi of engaging influencers. It is evident that the choice of influencers is not based on their sagacity, eloquence, and understanding of critical national issues, but on the number of followers they have and their frequency of content virality online. The mandate is seemingly not to carry out an issues-based campaign which, in the long run, does not benefit the citizens.”

Toying Olorundero’s path, Olaniyan noted that in their aggressive self-branding, celebrities and micro-celebrities live in a world that’s often far from reality; the sole purpose of which is to build social capital. “If you only look at micro-celebrities like Tacha and Jane Mena, you easily see that one, social media appears to promise fame and wealth, and two, there is a cheap formula for replicating success.

“In their world, there is a ‘reel’ life, the one they invest heavily to show their followers and the ‘real life,’ which should be a far more accurate measure of their street credibility. Understanding and measuring their street credibility is confusing and naturally so; because the ‘celebrification’ of ordinary people most times allocates far more credibility than is earned.

“This is why the organizers of the Osogbo rallies appear to miss the point. Unless they were brought in for their pure entertainment value, there is nothing to support any argument that they can affect the votes tomorrow. I can imagine organizers of the Osogbo rallies defining those appearances as influencer marketing but they either don’t understand the concept or misread the ability of the two musicians to deliver votes.

“An influencer is one who can convince his followers to take an action and I guess the intention of the organizers is to leverage the musicians’ star power to increase their candidate’s chances of winning at the polls tomorrow.  But can they? There is a thin line between an online micro-celebrity or influencer who achieves some level of influence and credibility by intentionally creating content on social media and celebrities who become famous for their skill or notoriety in some other venue.

“With large followership, both can command online influence that can be used for marketing purposes but there must be a perfect fit between the organization or brand seeking to partner a celebrity or micro-celebrity; and measurement of marketing result. Sentiment for or against those who use influencer marketing is directly aligned to the public perception of the celebrity or micro-celebrity selected for partnership

“Given the reaction so far, the APC appears to have messed up the selection of ‘influencer’ to partner with and that’s because the artiste they went with is notorious for attracting negative sentiments. To attend a public rally in boxers while appearing to desecrate the monument of one of Yoruba’s most respected legends is bound to attract criticism. That fellow’s action illustrates the dangers and limitations of influencer marketing. Unless the APC have reason to believe that he will deliver votes, the young man’s appearance in Osogbo is the political equivalent of an own goal.”

How not to select a political influencer

In view of this, Patrick Aigbokhan of Kingdom Heritage Communications highlights the pitfall PR experts and marketing professionals must avoid in selecting influencers for political engagements: “There is a thin line between an online micro-celebrity or influencer who achieves some level of influence and credibility by intentionally creating content on social media and celebrities who become famous for their skill or notoriety in some other fields. Given the reaction post-Osun elections, the APC appears to have messed up the selection of ‘influencer’ to partner with and that’s because the artiste they went with is notorious for attracting negative sentiments.”

Tosin adds, Social media is the playground of most influencers, and is quite vulnerable to negative agendas and fake news. Social media influencers, as agents of virality, without the restraints of ethics can further the objectives of a negative agenda and viral misinformation.

“We have seen this play out in the past few months where some influencers are apprehended for selling Ponzi Schemes to their followers who later lost tens of millions of naira. The issue of ethics is not something to be swept under the carpet with the engagement of influencers in politics and election matters”.

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