The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it settled its first case under its newly-issued guidelines on native advertising. It accused retailer Lord & Taylor of not disclosing that its “influencers” were paid off.

FTC complaint cited Lord & Taylor on two fronts: first, Lord & Taylor ran a form of paid “native advertising” disguised as content in Nylon magazine with no disclaimer that the article was actually paid placement; second, it pointed to an Instagram influencer campaign wherein 50 fashion influencers were paid between $1,000 and $4,000 to wear the dress and promote it in their Instagram accounts—with no disclosure of the payment.

The rush to native advertising and so-called “influencer marketing” reveals the great divide between old-world marketing thinking and what should be the essence of contemporary public relations. 
It’s all about the interpretation of influence, and the understanding of what makes for true relationship building.

If you view influence as something you can buy, then you look to engineer the
appearance of honest testimonials and independent journalism without the disclosures that might unmask such efforts as paid-for. So you create content that looks and feels like the independently-crafted work, but is actually created by or for a client with no disclosure. Or you treat social media influence as a form of a media buy or product placement. You pay a YouTube or Instagram celebrity to post something nice about your product or brand.

In the case of the Lord & Taylor dress promotion, the dress sold out, so they can claim this form of influence tactic was effective. However, it will not take many such unmaskings before the consumers, (who, remember, are really humans), get seriously jaded and cynical about any implied testimonials and feel the system is rigged and they are the shills.

This does not mean that celebrity endorsements and product placements cannot work. They surely can with the right timing, and the right match-ups of celebrity, followers and product. But it is tactical and fleeting. It does not mean people will stand by you long-term or in a crisis. When the paid relationship is undisclosed it is attempted manipulation that will ultimately drive more cynicism. If it were not intended as manipulation, then why not disclose the relationship from the beginning? People thought social media influencers were rebels, above the paid influence of traditional authorities. To discover that even
they are in the pocket of a company must erode fans’ faith and loyalty. Worse, to discover their heroes may not even like the product they claim to love (witness the spectacular meltdown of Instagram model Essena O’Neill) further alienates them.

By some tracking studies, cynicism the highest in decades, while empathy is diving. The Global Social Survey reveals a long decline in trust of others. We had hoped that midst all this distrust we could at least depend on those we admire.

There are two worldviews when it comes to influence in the consumer marketplace: you either believe you are more clever than people who buy your products and can manipulate them through undisclosed payments to their trusted heroes to promote your wares (one form of “influencer marketing”); or you believe that the only enduring form of influence is an honest, respectful relationship, based on mutual interests, that ends up
earning influence.  The former is old-world marketing think, and more and more evidence will reveal is less and less effective. The latter should be what all public relations professionals embrace as both the essence of real PR, and as the key differentiator between real PR and advertising and other disciplines.

Not all influencer marketing is so cynical, but how people define “influencer marketing” differs widely.  Social scientists contend that there is but one true measure of genuine influence: will the other person change their views and/or behavior
only after having interacted with you. It does not mean fandom or similar tastes or popularity. It means intentional agency leading to change. Most current forms of influencer marketing is actually a media buy, paying off a social media celebrity to have them tout your product to their fan base.

Altimeter analyst and author Brian Solis put it this way: “Advertising will find a few top celebs, with some of them being internet famous, to become part of a campaign. PR on the other hand, will find said influencers and nurture longer-term relationships that keep the brand relevant now and in the long term.”

This seizing of the moral high ground in influence building may sound a bit suspect coming from an industry often called  “spin”. But if we walk the talk of earned influence, this is a great moment to separate ourselves from the fray. To do that, public relations must demonstrate there is an art-- and expert science-- of relationships that earn influence.

How do we define and execute “earned influence?”

First, a side-by-side comparison of what earned influence is… and isn’t:

Is:                                                                             Is Not:

Attraction                                                                 Coercion

Mutual interest                                                        Inducements

Freely-chosen                                                         Bullying

Honest & respectful                                                Manipulative

Intrinsic                                                                   Extrinsic

Demands credibility & competence                       Cynical exploitation

Long-term, sustaining                                              Fleeting


To earn influence, you must embrace both the art and science of genuine relationship building. That should be the essence of Public Relations.


  1. Listening: It starts with respectful listening to individuals and groups, hearing their tone of voice, their argot, their fears, anxieties, hopes and worldviews. More than just demographic targeting—this is empathetic listening. This can now be aided by very sophisticated tools, especially in social media.


  2. Social norms: Next comes the identification of their social norms and tribes and matching your messenger to them. Not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a true member of their tribe who espouses the views or ideals with which you are looking to align. If your messenger or advocate is a generic spokesperson or not from their tribe, their defensive shields will go up immediately.  

 3.  Content as Reciprocity: When crafting content in a mindset of earned influence, you do so to help the other party rather than to manipulate them. Having learned more about their interests, you can now share content you can be fairly certain they will find useful or entertaining or valuable in some way. You know this because you know them—as humans.  And you do it first, without demands for transaction.

Earning influence requires reciprocity (one of influence expert Robert Cialdini’s 5 pillars of influence). If you hope to genuinely influence others over a long relationship, you must be open to being influenced as well. If one party pays the other to do its bidding, that is not the kind of reciprocity that fosters equal relationships.

Imagine if, “in real life,” you decided to have dinner with a potential new friend. You are bowled over by the conversation and learn from them about a whole new concept or phenomenon you had never heard of before. Just a couple of days later, coincidentally, you see an article alluding to what they talked about. Your instincts are probably to send them the article and tell them how cool it was to find out about this new field over a fascinating dinner.  It says, implicitly, you were listening to them and found them interesting. That’s a form of relationship building through content. But instead imagine if after that same dinner you sent your new friend a wholly-unrelated article praising the benefits of your client’s new product—something never, ever mentioned in your conversation over dinner. Your new friend would be either deeply puzzled or revolted. When crafting and sharing content to earn influence, the goal is a deepening of the relationship and not necessarily an immediate transaction.

The ultimate and most persuasive advocacy comes via true supporters, not mercenaries. The pervasiveness of little deceptions turns people cynical. The way to break through is a deeply human concept: relationships that foster trust.  It’s more difficult, slower, but ultimately longer-lasting and more effective to transparently earn permission to influence someone. That’s
earned influence. And that should be at the core of public relations. Let’s prove it through a real domain expertise that integrates a deep understanding of narrative, reputation, relationships, social psychology and behavioral sciences.


Christopher Graves is chair of the PR Council and global chair, Ogilvy Public Relations