It was a bikini photo that did it.
Her audience seemed divided.
Was it right for a 29 year old, mum influencer who sails the world to reveal so much in a photo on her Instagram feed?
Some of the fans of the highly popular YouTube show Sailing La Vagabond clearly didn’t like it.
But instead of reacting by cowering and apologising she fought back and by the look of the number of likes, the vast, vast majority of her audience seem to be on her side.
So, what could our organisations learn from influencers like Elena who stick to their guns?
Could they deliberately fight back and even build brand loyalty by doing so? There are global firms who have.
And is it ever safe to try to stick to your guns in this modern era of Public Relations?
I’m reading through some of the comments on Elena’s Instagram feed.
Both posts. the first ones and the second one got around 50,000 likes despite the critical comments.
To give you a bit of background, Elayna Carausu and her partner Riley Whitelum travel the world on a boat called La Vagabonde with their two young children.
The’re show is a mix of travel vlog, “Family Robinson” with the family travelling a simple life through beautiful, often exotic, scenery.
It’s escapism and there’s no getting away from it they are a good looking couple. It’s the perfect mix for social media.
On the 1st Jan 2023 Elena released a number of photos of her wearing quite a small bikini with the caption….
“inspirational quote about the new year, to give herself an excuse to post a meaningless bikini photoshoot w butt pics HAPPY NEW YEAR.
The response from some was :-
“I’m out. Not respectful”
“I just think about what all the young girls see when they look at a role model exposing herself like this”
Then on the other side of the arguement there were plenty too. I won’t quote them here as some were….well…. quite blunt but fiercely defensive.
Eleena replied 2 days later with more swimsuit pictures and the comment.
“I’m a mother of 2 and I’m running a bikini company. If you find my twice a year butt pics too much then really, thank you for following but we’ve grown apart and it’s probably best if we move on ?”
If I scroll down the comments on this second post you find more negative comments, ironically with some of the people who said they would stop following them in the first post still commenting.
The reality of the world in 2023
So was she right to do that?
As always this show is not about the morals of what should be posted on social media. There are plenty of shows covering that sort of thing. This is about the PR perspective. So what can we learn from the way she fought back whether it was about pictures like this or any criticsm of our organisation.
Anyone in PR in any organisation in 2023 knows the risks of cancel culture and public shaming. Let’s face it PR people are very much in demand these days for that very reason.
For many organisations faced with criticism, the response is to either go quiet (a topic I’m going to be doing an episode on next week by the way after a request from a listener) or to release a short statement with a vague acknowledgement that the organisation supports whichever is the loudest voice and narrative on the topic that day.
This is a valid and very good strategy but could they instead fight back and increase the loyalty and if you are selling things, the sales from the people who most matter to them?
Opinions divide but increase attachment
The simple fact, and we all know thism having an opinion, means dividing people.
It doesn’t matter whether you are Will Smith, Kim Kardashian or the local widget shop maker, if you have an opinion some people will agree, some people won’t.
That is why in political PR you are not going to win an election if you have too many clear cut opionions.
So often political language is designed to sound like it means what the listener wants to hear rather than getting specific.
But what if you are clear, what if you do get specific?
Dividing people can has an upside.
The psychology of division
The psychchological proof can be seen across history.
As humans we feel more strongly bonded to people who share our views and our opinions.
Propagadists throughout time have used this to identified an enemy because nothing unites people better than highlighting how others disagree with you.
Cults (and there are some great books on this) use the same strategy to create a sense of belonging which as we know, can reach obsessive levels.
When we divide opinion we start to play into this psychology which is built into all of us.
But don’t you lose people?
So, dividing opinion increases loyalty but it also means you lose people right?
Yes, but who are we losing?
Elena and Riley know what their core fans want.
They know they are attractive, you can see by their thumbnails they use.
They know what works from the data.
By delivering what their core fans want they delight them more, which leads to more support and more purchases of their merchandise.
The people they lose are the outliers.
Put it another way, upsetting your core avatar personality is going to be a ticket to disaster.
But upsetting people who are not your avatar/outliers is going to have far less impact.
If the people we lose are not our core customers, or supporters and may cost more time and effort to nurture than your true avatar fans then does it matter? Wouldn’t it be better to nurture those who are more likely to convert than dealing with those who aren’t. Are you in effect clearing out the “deadwood”?
It’s worked for global firms
Dividing people clearly works.
Does Apple try to win over avid Windows users? No, because hard core Windows fans will stick with Windows. The same is true with Apple fans.
The furious battle between these platforms actually helps both sides as it makes the fans of each platform more passionate and more vocal and turns them not just into customers but into obessesive customers who will buy nothing else.
Looking at the numbers it’s clear which side Elena’s core fans are on.
Is it worth the risk?
There are clearly benefits but is it worth the risk?
If you are like me, you’ll be feeling very nervous about this whole idea from a PR mindset.
As usual when you look at how people have approached this it depends on the circumstances, so let’s run through a few examples.
The first thing to think about is, is the opinion or action to be defended clearly defined? If it is, then will the opinion shared today be acceptable in 5 years time?
Being on the winning side of history has helped and hurt many figures.
Supporting an idea that seems normal now could be ridiculed in 5-10 years. Getting it wrong could end a company, personality or politican.
Taking the safer approach
The safer approach I think, is to make your initial response more generic just like political language. In other words you are going to tie a narrative that anyone can accept into what you are doing.
For example, let’s take Elon Musk in his pre-Twitter days when he was interviewed at the Met Gala in 2022.
He was aked why are you doing all this stuff when you could be giving money to charity and saving lives, curing cancer, etc?
The emotion in the question is hard to respond to right? But the first thing he did was to find a common narrative that was hard to argue with and then backed up what he was doing in relation to that.
He fought back but by bridging his answer to a safer narrative.
This is what he said…
‘Well I do do a lot of things philanthropically and really my companies are intended to do good for the future of humanity.’
He goes onto mention how he is developing sustainable transport and energy with electric cars. How Space X is providing internet to the least served people around the world and how he is using Starlink to provide internet to Ukraine.
When you look at it, this is the same approach Elena took.
“I’m a mum”, she said, “I work hard, proud of my body.”
She addressed her perspective with common themes that were hard to argue with. Key themes like “mum”, “works hard”, “has a business”, etc.
She said that and then said, although more directly just like Musk that she was going to carry on posting pictures like this.
Using social capital
But there is also another factor which organisations can use if they want to get opinionated.
Both Musk pre-twitter and Elena have built up a good body of social narrative to the point that momentum was on their side.
Musk was the “pioneer taking on the petrol guzzling cars” and inspiring us with a vision of the future.
In La Vagabond, Elena and Riley spend a lot of their time talking about environmentalism, eating healthy food, cleaning up waste, etc. They even sailed environmentalist Greta Thumberg across the Atlantic on their boat.
In La Vagabond they often go spear fishing. This is where they dive into the ocean with large spears and shoot and capture fish. With a very vocal lobby now around animal cruelty it was inevitable they would get criticsm. But they fought back again.
They explained how they eat everything, how they pick only certain types of fish, etc.
But they had momentum on their side. They have built up such social capital with their core fans that critics couldn’t derail them.
With at least half a million views per episode every week and them purchasing a brand new, very expensive boat it’s clearly not been an issue.
So buiding social capital in advance of getting into the opinion game can certianly help orgnisations build a protective buffer.
- It’s a dangerous game but it can clearly work to increase your core fans support.
- It will certainly help to build social capital in advance to act as a buffer so that you are seen as being on the good side of things “generally”. Le Vagabond certainly do this. This would need to be done by building a series of things which you can use to defend your narrative. Probably the best approach to this is not to focus on one big effort but to take 10 smaller ones. Putting out good news often appears to have little value but when you can refer back to it to build a strong narrative defense, it’s going to help.
- As always, know what your audience wants from the data. La Vagabond know people like the Elena and Riley sitting in their swimwear with the sun behind them and the children running around. It’s a “beautiful” family in the sunshine. They know what the audience they want to reach wants.
It’s pretty clear Elena..and Riley know what works for their core audience. They have plenty of social capital and by having opinions they have helped to boost the loyalty of their fan base and what’s the proof, well something is paying for the huge new boat they are building.
Listen to the episode for more context
Photo by Jess Loiterton: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-and-blue-boat-on-blue-sea-4600762/