Friday, May 17, 2013

Actress Angelina Jolie Demonstrates the Power of an Influencer

In the PR business, we often refer to some audiences as “influencers.”  Theoretically, an influencer is anyone we might target with communications who in turn will have some influence over others we may want to target with our messages.

A simple example is a hair stylist.  He or she may not be likely to buy the expensive luxury car we are selling today, but the stylist may have the kind of clientele we are targeting with marketing messages. And our research may indicate that our desired customer tends to confide quite a bit in his or her hair stylist and oftentimes listens to tips they get in the salon.

Well, that’s the idea.  Putting it into practice is quite another matter.

A much more real and dramatic example of the power of an influencer came this week when the news was filled with stories about actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to preemptively have a double mastectomy to prevent the onset of breast cancer.

First the background.  The actress’s mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer.  Ms. Jolie’s grandmother had ovarian cancer.  This is why when we go to the doctor’s office, they always ask us about family history. There is something to it.

Given this pattern, it was believed that the 37-year old actress had a strong likelihood that she could eventually be touched by cancer. 

 She had a test for a gene that confirmed she indeed was at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  It’s called the BRCA1 gene.  Needless to say, not all insurance carriers cover this test and it’s not inexpensive. 

So, Ms. Jolie decided to have her two healthy breasts removed in February, and later had reconstruction surgery. 

That’s the news.  Now, about the impact.

Because she is a pop culture icon, she can command the cover of nearly any magazine just by picking up the phone.  If she attends a red carpet ceremony, she’s sure to draw attention of the cameras.  When she grants an interview – “grant” being the operative word – there aren’t many reporters who would turn down the chance.  If she wants to speak to the U.N., the door has been opened to her. If she wants to meet with an elected leader in Washington, she can probably get a meeting with just about anyone.

This kind of clout carries with it some real power.  Millions of men and women follow and care about this actress whom they’ve never met in person and are not likely to ever see in person.  In a Hollywood-obsessed society, the most famous actors and actresses are regarded as assets to a large number of marketing and cause-marketing programs.  And that’s just if you can get them to endorse the cause verbally or through the usual means – press conferences, special events, advertising, etc.

Now, here comes a member of the Hollywood elite who not only has an opinion on breast cancer, but she has a family history, and further, she actually endured a double-mastectomy to prevent developing the disease.

What could be more powerful than that in drawing attention to breast cancer and the preventative measures that can be taken?

To be sure, I am not saying what Ms. Jolie did was right or wrong.  That’s not the point here.  I don’t know enough about the costs, the medical issues involved, or even the actress’s tolerance for risk.  Other women facing the same odds may opt not to take such a significant preemptive measure.

But what has happened this week is that the actress drew attention to the whole idea of taking preemptive action, preventative measures to combat cancer.  She may have stirred debate on the issue.  Those of us in PR know that this alone is good for raising awareness of important issues.

Because so many women respect her, she may have given some the idea to have themselves tested and make a more informed decision, whether or not they take the same action. 

And that is the power of an influencer.  In the PR business, if you can get an influencer – famous or not – to endorse your message, you’ve gone a long way towards moving the needle.  But if you can tap the power of an influencer who is willing to serve as an example for others, there’s almost no way to quantify a value on that. 

Usually I'm skeptical when I see the weight people ascribe to actors and actresses. But I recognize an influencer when I see one, and this week, Angelina Jolie demonstrated just how powerful an influencer can be.

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