Public Relations is a management discipline that relates to planned and sustained engagement designed to influence behavior change and build understanding and trust. This definition by Stephen Waddington in his article, What is Public Relations?, on influenceonline.co.uk, hits the bull’s eye. Public Relations uses the power of influence to shape the decisions of an organization’s public’s and stakeholders. It is what gets them to buy into its PR messages, shifts their grounds or positions on issues, changes their beliefs and makes them behave favorably towards an organization. Influence is also what makes an organization win in the court of public opinion both in peace or crisis times. It is the capacity to affect the perceptions, attitudes, opinions and behaviors of others without the use of force.

One way that PR professionals employ the power of influence is the involvement of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and influencers as third party endorsers of key messages of a PR campaign.

Of the six weapons of influence Robert Cialdini identified as reciprocity, commitment and consistency, scarcity, socials proof, authority and liking, PR professionals exploit the last three. They have learnt that people look to the actions of others to determine their own. They tend to rely on the people around them for cues on how to think, feel and act (social proof). They also know that people follow the lead of experts (authority) and say yes to the people they like (liking).

KOLs and Influencers: how are they different?

Many professionals use the terms interchangeably but there’s a world of difference between the two. Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are recognized experts in a field of knowledge or in an industry. Academicians, newspaper columnists, politicians, religious leaders and experts in different fields such as doctors, pharmacists, surveyors, accountants, et cetera are opinion leaders. Business Dictionary defines it as “influential members of a community, group or society who others turn to for advice, opinions, and views”.

On the other hand, influencers are those who have built tremendous followership on the social media as a result of the contents they upload. They may or may not be experts in a niche area, but they are able to affect the way a large number of people feel and think about things. Sometimes, simply producing contents that documents their day to day life is enough. All that is required is a persona or public image that people like, admire and want to be like. Popular social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube or Twitter are where they invest their time and other resources.

In other words, KOLs are defined by their expertise and reputation in a particular field. They may or may not have a very strong presence in the social media, and they may not have a great number of followers, but influencers are defined solely by their social media presence and number of followers.

Another point of difference is that opinion leaders have existed long before the advent of social media and influencer marketing. In fact, Paul Lazarsfield is known to have done a study of opinion leaders in 1940 when he conducted a survey on the presidential election in United States to find out how the mass media affected political opinion of voters. That study gave birth to the Two-Step Flow Theory of Communication which explains that information flows from the mass media to opinion leaders, and from there to a wider population, making it unlikely for such information to have direct effect on the population. But influencers came after the emergence of social media.

As thought leaders, KOLs generate content of high quality primarily to educate others about their field of expertise. But most influencers are trend spotters who, most of the times, generate contents only to entertain.

Opinion leaders are defined by their localized influence; whereas, influencers have global reach. Only opinion leaders with strong presence and followership on social media can complete with influencers in terms of reach. Mediakix.com reveals that there are five tiers of influencers which are as follows:

  • Nano-influencers: 1000 to 10,000 followers
  • Micro-influencers: 10,000 to 50,000 followers
  • Mid-tier influencers: 50,000 to 500,000 followers
  • Macro-influencers: 500,000 to 1,000,000 followers
  • Mega-influencers: 1,000,000 plus followers.

 Sometimes, KOLs and influencers overlap. This happens when KOLs, who are not necessarily defined by the numbers of followers in the social media, have solid presence and tremendous following on social network platforms.

What KOLs can do for PR

There’s a lot that KOLs can do for PR. You can use them as brand advocates. They are respected by consumers for their expert and professional status. Associating your brand with an expert is certain to rob off positively on it. The expert factor in them engenders trust in both your corporate and product brands and impacts the purchasing decisions of consumers. But ensure that the personality, authority and character of your chosen KOL align with your brand.

When the science behind a product or the technicalities of a given situation is complex, you need KOLs to break them down for stakeholders to understand. They remain the most trusted voices at such times, but ensure you don’t get a carpenter to explain the reasons behind stomach aches. A good example is the use of dentists in toothpaste brands. We’ve seen this in the Sensodyne brand.

KOLs are also very useful in times of crisis. Every crisis situation creates need for information as to what happened, why it happened and what is being done to resolve the problem. Getting them to explain crisis-related issues connected to their areas of expertise has the capacity to generate the needed understanding of stakeholders and douse existing tension. They have what it takes to better define and frame the issues in ways that resonate with them. More so, stakeholders are more likely to bow to their opinions than to others.  After all, people naturally submit to expert opinion.

In times of change, KOLs can be very useful in managing uncertainties. They can help create awareness, generate a buy-in, give guidance and assurances to stakeholders;  and, by so doing,  make a change programme successful.

You can’t underestimate the power of opinion leaders in both physical and online community management and the benefits that could bring to an organization. One Procter and Gamble (P&G) initiative is a case in point. The company set up a website by the name Vocalpoint, made up of influential mothers who share their experiences of using P&G’s new products with their network. The company reported it made twice the sales in markets with active Vocalpoint influencers when compared to other markets.

Opinion leaders have always been a great resource for effective Public Relations management. It remains the same today when social media is defining how we communicate even when marketers prefer to call them Key Opinion leaders.

Influencers: Anything for PR?

Since social media channels have become a go-to spots for information on virtually anything, the power of influencers have increased and their usefulness in PR has grown tremendously. They shape consumers’ thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. This explains brands are lining up to associate with these social media personas.

These people flaunt their passions in very creative ways and attract millions who would have loved to do the same but are limited by one circumstance or the other. Relaying your message to a couple of relevant influencers who then promote it to their vast network is likely to make a great impact in terms of reach and resonance. Such messages also enjoy third-party endorsement by a popular figure whose opinion the followers respect and would always want to hear.

How do they help PR? They help PR raise awareness for both an organization and its products or services effectively, engage easily with stakeholders (especially customers), and promote brands, using the following methods:

  • Product or service reviews
  • Brand mentions
  • Contests
  • Coupon codes
  • Blog posts
  • Long-term partnerships/ambassador programmes
  • Events
  • Product placements
  • Free products
  • Sponsorships, etc

Which should you go for?

Deciding whether to go for KOLs or influencers depends on the PR strategies you have adopted, your budget, your target audience, the goals you intend to achieve and number of several other factors. For instance, if you are addressing a complex scientific issue, using KOLs may well be your best choice. But on matters involving millennial, influencers could well be your best consideration.

The rise in popularity of Key Opinion Leaders and Influencers in Marketing and PR is indicative of their ability to persuade and engage organizations’ stakeholders. All you need to do is to select the right fit for your brand. Knowing their reputation and reach of influence, relevance to your brand and their level of communication expertise are all you need to crack the code.