Published on February 18, 2021, at 11:11 a.m.
by Rachel Fuller.
When a picture, video or other content is posted online, it is almost impossible to completely erase its existence. The severity of consequences from social media posts is amplified due to the scrutiny on influencers’ social lives. Social media influencers reach millions of people across the world, many of whom are underage. This wide reach brings up an ethical dilemma. What responsibility do influencers have to follow society’s rules, especially during a global pandemic? What responsibility do they have to set the right example for impressionable young followers?
Los Angeles is the mecca of social media influencers. With a population of almost four million people, L.A. is naturally a concern for COVID-19 infections. According to the L.A. Times’ Coronavirus tracker, Los Angeles County had 1.1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Feb. 15, 2021. The county is classified as “Tier 1,” causing many nonessential businesses to be closed.
In the midst of the pandemic, celebrities in L.A. have been breaking the strict health regulations and hosting social gatherings, often without a mask in sight. A recent and prominent example is Kylie Jenner, famous for her upbringing on the reality TV show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” She hosted a birthday party for her daughter Stormi Webster’s third birthday on February 1. While she claims she scaled back the attendees and activities for the event, multiple family groups were in attendance, exceeding the 15-person limit on indoor gatherings by an L.A. health officer order. Jenner posted videos of the group singing “Happy Birthday” without masks, which is also advised against by L.A. County COVID-19 regulators. No one in attendance was seen in a mask during the event.
The ethical dilemma here is the illusion Jenner gave about health and safety to her followers. It is unknown whether the groups in attendance were given rapid tests to ensure a negative COVID-19 result before the party. The Kardashians and Jenners are known for using rapid tests to excuse their large parties, as seen in November at Kendall Jenner’s rooftop birthday party. Even if she did give rapid tests to all in attendance, the CDC has stated that these tests are not as accurate as once thought, especially in asymptomatic cases.
Public relations implications
Erin Vogt, director of public relations for the agency PERITUS public relations, said actions like these have negative PR implications. She explained, “If an influencer gave the appearance of social distancing and then wasn’t in public, that could be easily exposed and jeopardize the trust they’ve built with their followers.”
In Jenner’s case, she exposed her actions herself through social media. When influencers flaunt their privilege without regard for others, their followers can lose trust and engagement with them. Vogt said that influencers’ actions are especially important when they are working with brands. She noted, “When influencers work with brands, it’s often because the influencer can act as an extension of the brand to bring it to life. If the influencer does something that is not brand-aligned, we often see those types of partnerships end.”
The danger of Jenner’s actions is that if brands she affiliates with are upset by her lack of regard for the health and safety of others, they could disaffiliate and she could lose some brand deals. Jenner sold 51% of her company Kylie Cosmetics to beauty company Coty in November 2019. Since then, she has faced issues of honesty. There was speculation about her net worth and the company’s true profit numbers being overstated. Thus, Jenner is no stranger to transparency issues.
Robby Johnson, director of marketing and communications at The
University of West Alabama, has a simple approach to social media transparency.
“Share only what you’re OK with the world knowing forever,” he advised.
Johnson described Jenner’s actions as modeling “privilege, entitlement … brand elements that alienate rather than associate.” From his perspective, Jenner’s actions bring up important lessons about best practices in crisis PR counseling. He said it’s wise to consider hypothetical negative scenarios when vetting potential influencers.
“Do your due diligence … even if their image initially screams, ‘This is a great person to align with my brand,’ do your homework and make sure they are going to be accountable in a crisis.”
From a public relations standpoint, Kylie Jenner’s social media presence during the pandemic goes against best practices. By hosting her event without following mandatory guidelines by Los Angeles County, she shows disregard for not only her community but also for an ethical presence on social media. The implications of these actions on her audience are extensive in that she is not only losing support from her fans, but is also setting a dangerous example for younger, more impressionable fans.