Are you ready to work with LGBTQIA+ influencers?

by Rahul Sachitanand

While many agencies and brands may be keen to work with diverse spokespersons, they must adapt PR strategies carefully for each market and be aware of the perils of ‘pridewashing’.

Nutt Nisamanee

Nutt Nisamanee, 30, a Thai trans influencer, has seen an explosion of work from brands keen to diversify their spread of spokespersons. During Pride month, she has been busier than ever keeping pace with back-to-back engagements. With over 1.58 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.4 million on her Facebook page and 816,000 and 964,000 followers on Instagram and Tiktok, respectively, Nisamanee is a strong example of how members of the rainbow community can break through entrenched biases and become votaries for brands and causes across APAC.

Despite the emergence of some star KOLs and changing attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ people in society, PR agencies and influencers need to tread with caution as they seek to deepen their relationships. For one, making use of LGBTQIA+ influencers in the region is challenging because the market is diverse. What may seem completely acceptable in developed markets such as Australia could be culturally (and legally) taboo in some markets. So, when piecing together a PR campaign, it helps to not just understand the business, but as brands and agencies seek a wider representation, to comprehend what sort of messaging works in each market.

“Pride is local—there’s no one-size-fits-all for APAC, and any activation, marketing initiative or communication needs to reflect the local culture and support the needs of the community,” says Danny Cowan (pictured below), director, corporate, at Edelman Australia and APAC lead of Edelman Equal, the firm’s resource and advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ employees. “Brands must do the diligence to ensure the influencers they engage with align with their values and speak to LGBTQIA+ messages with authenticity.”

Danny Cowan

Historically, APAC agencies have witnessed mixed receptions to content driven by LGBTQIA+ influencers, and PR agencies are cautious, but firm on the path they must take on this front.

“As hashtags, contests, livestreams, and more surround the events and festivities, Pride is a wonderful platform for brands who show their support for the LGBTQIA+ community and collaborate with influencers that come from diverse lifestyles and identities, not just for this one month but all year long,” says Arthur Altounian (pictured below), APAC client development director with GroupM-owned influencer-management platform Inca. “Consumers are paying more and more attention to what brands choose to stand up for, and among social and environmental causes, diversity and inclusion contributions towards the community is one that will resonate with consumers in a meaningful way.”

While consumers may be more open to promotions from KOLs in the LGBTQIA+ community, history suggests the reception may be mixed. For example, in India, a near century-old jewellery chain Bhima won plaudits for its work ‘Pure as love’ featuring a trans woman. But in China, a Calvin Klein campaign with an African-American plus-size transgender model got mixed reviews, with social-media users panning the attempt to be politically correct.

According to Rohit Sharma, chief operating officer with AnyMind Group, which provides a range of technology platforms and services including offerings for influencer management, the top three topics that LGBTQIA+ influencers focus on are entertainment and lifestyle, fashion and beauty, and food and beverage. “In fact, there is not much difference in Asia between LGBTQIA+ influencers and the rest … in terms of the topics that they focus on,” he adds.

PR agency leaders say that they are building up their own capabilities in-house, even as they seek to externally expand their LGBTQIA+ influence. For example, Margaret Key, Asia-Pacific and MEA CEO for Publicis Groupe’s MSL (pictured below), says the agency uses the group’s guidelines about respect and equitable treatment as a guide as it prospects for business with LGBTQIA+ influencers.

“Respect to everyone, whoever they are,” she says. “Everyone has a seat around the table, everyone has a voice.” The group also allows zero tolerance for all forms of discrimination and fosters ‘equality of chance’ for new positions, roles or promotions. These principles  extend to efforts to diversify the pool of KOLs. “As for our MSL network, (we are) glad to see we have an equal gender balance among our senior and all of our leaders are home-grown talent, ensuring we have a broad and diverse range of experience and insight,” she adds.

MSL is among the first agencies to have codified the idea of working with a wider set of voices. In August last year, the firm launched its influencer diversity commitments in the US, promising four measurable commitments to this program, focussed on people who are black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) by the end of 2020. Using its Fluency platform, MSL hopes to implement diversity, inclusion and equal-pay measures to create a more diverse and inclusive industry, the agency had announced. Key couldn’t comment on whether this program would be extended to APAC.

Nevertheless, changing social mores and growing acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially in media means more work is headed their way.

“Since 2020 in the influencer-marketing industry, I think there are more opportunities and more acceptance for LGBTQ+ at my work as an influencer,” says Nisamanee, the aforementioned KOL. “There are even some products that are more suitable for LGBTQIA+.… For instance I have an opportunity to photoshoot for the cover of Bazaar magazine for Pride month, since I’ve been to the Pride event abroad as a Thai representative.”

Some of the biggest creators and influencers, like Nisamanee, are prominent members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and their visibility and online presence hve helped countless fans come to love and accept themselves, says Altounian of Inca. “These icons have created emotional coming-out videos, lent their talents to charitable causes, and made themselves a beacon for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community that felt unseen or unconsidered,” he says. “Pride isn’t just a chance for brands to join the conversation, it’s a movement for them to market for good.” 

So just how do PR agencies jump aboard, and how do they choose the right KOL to work with? According to Sharma of AnyMind (pictured above), marketers should not select influencers based on their gender preferences, but rather base selection criteria on a KOL’s follower demographics, interests and content. “With deeper data, marketers can understand and have greater foresight into how a campaign can perform with the right influencers,” he contends.

First things first

Edelman’s Cowan says that before brands can consider working with the community, it’s critical they have a crystal-clear LGBTQIA+ inclusion strategy—one that is supported by action—before they even think about external communications. “Such activities, including influencer engagement, are the last step of the process that needs to begin and end with employees and the LGBTQIA+ community at its heart,” he says.

And, despite the promise of working with the LGBTIQA+ community, the peril of ‘pridewashing’ is very real, industry leaders admit.

“The advice for brands is that if they are keen to show their efforts in diversity and inclusion, they should integrate diversity and inclusion into the entirety of their business,” concludes AnyMind’s Sharma. “It should be a 365-day effort, not a 30-day campaign. When audiences understand what a brand stands for around diversity and inclusion, that is when messaging actually connects.”

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