Social distancing influencers: Effective public health campaign or ‘joke’?

Social distancing influencers: Effective public health campaign or ‘joke’?
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Forty-five minutes into a five-hour long Board of County Commissioners meeting on April 7, county health director Gibbie Harris mentioned a new media outreach plan.

The goal, Harris said, was to reach certain communities in Charlotte who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — primarily young adults and African-Americans — with paid radio advertisements and social media influencers.

Record scratches. Influencers?

Twitter erupted: “This is the biggest joke I have ever seen. We don’t have meals, bathrooms, etc. for the homeless community, but yes, let’s pay social ‘influencers.’ I am disgusted,” one tweet read.

“Charlotte’s got a lot … of influencers on the payroll during a pandemic,” another read.


City residents had questions: Who? How much? Why?

During a press conference the next day, Harris explained the county would work with a local firm, but didn’t share which firm and added that no contract had been signed yet and no decisions had been made on which influencers to hire.

She also shared some jarring statistics about local coronavirus cases: Over half of the county’s coronavirus deaths are African-American. Over 70 percent of the cases in the county are in people between the ages of 20-59. “We have to focus on how we message to this population,” Harris said.

That answered the “why,” but questions lingered.

Two days later, on April 10, the county backed away from the idea of paid influencers altogether.

According to an email from the Charmeck Joint Information Center, the county received an “overwhelming response from a number of social media users and community leaders who have offered to help spread the message as a community service. At this time, Public Health is exploring the option of working with such users at no cost.”

This is how it should be in a crisis, says David Oakley, president and creative director at BooneOakley, a local advertising agency.

Oakley thinks the idea is a good one, but only if influencers view participation as a public service, not as a business opportunity.

“If you’re an influencer … you should do it out of the goodness of your heart,” he says. “Do it for the community to help us get through this.”

No influencer partnerships with the county have been announced as of April 13, but some local Instagrammers have already taken to sharing public health information.

Rachel Brown, also known as @queencitychic, posted a photo wearing a Panthers-branded face covering and included information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now recommends wearing face masks in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” like the grocery store.

Usually Brown posts content about new restaurants, fashion, and her dog, but with this post, she wanted to be realistic in regards to the current crisis. “I thought it’s important for them to see because it matters to me for us all to stay healthy and home,” Brown tells me.

Government-sponsored media campaigns are nothing new. But, relatively speaking, the term “influencer” is.

At its core, an influencer is just a person who influences others, but in its modern-day context, the term is mostly used when referring to social media users with a large following.

If you’re not in the public relations and marketing industry, you may cringe at the word.

You might think of Kim Kardashian, a former contestant of The Bachelor selling skincare products on Instagram, or “a person on a street corner wearing some shiny kicks, taking a selfie,” says John Mader, VP and director of connections for Wray Ward, a local marketing agency.

In actuality, Mader says, a better example of an influencer is someone like Brad Panovich, the chief meteorologist for WCNC. “You wouldn’t typically think of him as an influencer … You’d think he’s the weather guy.”

But Panovich has vast reach and credibility, Mader says, two key ingredients for a successful influencer.

With more than 86,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 38,000 on Instagram, Panovich tells you to stay home because there’s a storm approaching, and you do. He’s influential.

Mader, who worked in media relations at the CDC in the early 2000s during the bird flu pandemic, agrees with Oakley that an influencer campaign could be a successful way to spread a public health message like social distancing, but it could be too late.

“There’s no way people haven’t heard it. It’s not like the message isn’t getting through,” Mader says.

“So are they going to be more impacted by someone they follow on social media telling them the same thing? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Social media engagement around the world is up 61 percent since March, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. We’re on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and other apps more than ever. So what’s with the influencer hate?

“Because they’re not influencers,” Oakley says, laughing over the phone. “It’s very easy to hate an influencer.”

For one, any mistake is in the public eye. For example, there was the especially brazen chain of errors from a New York City Instagrammer Arielle Charnas who was feeling sick so she pulled some strings from a “doctor friend,” got a test, tested positive, and then left the city for the Hamptons.

But Mader says, if the county chooses the right influencers to partner with, the campaign could be a success.

Earlier this month, Finland hired social media influencers to bolster the government’s efforts against the coronavirus pandemic. Influencers in Los Angeles have also been hired to spread positive messages during the crisis.

Locally, the county isn’t the only entity experimenting with the idea. Novant Health partnered with beatboxer Doug E. Fresh and Grammy Award-winning R&B artist Anthony Hamilton to produce original videos that encourage social distancing.

“Be sure to put your mask and your gloves on. Make sure you’re doing it riiight,” Hamilton sings a cappella-style to the camera in a YouTube video posted by Novant on April 10.

“Be cool, stay home. That’s the rules.”

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