To save itself from extinction, restaurant PR adapted to co-opt the nimblest and most-followed social media users — the ones they call influencers. Contributor George Reynolds explores how we got here and where we go next.
Hospitality is one of our oldest rituals; within it a host of similar-but-not-quite-the-same concepts bump uneasily up against one another. A true gift — where nothing is expected in return — is not the same as delayed exchange (when you’ll get something back, at some point); delayed exchange is not the same as bartering, in which the transaction takes place immediately and explicitly.
PR extends across the greyest of areas between these concepts; in addition, the transience of the token at one end of the bargain makes it even harder to be categorical. Comping a meal that lasts a couple of hours isn’t the same as giving a physical or monetary gift (it’s just dinner); accepting a couple of courses and a bottle of wine on the house is not as obviously venal as taking a bribe — you can, in fact, quite easily persuade yourself that it’s one of the perks of the job (just dinner!) rather than an inducement to provide positive coverage.
None of this behaviour is evil; I’m not even sure if it’s inexcusably unethical. But at least it used to be a lot easier to identify. In the past, if a new place opened and it was all you could read about in Time Out and The Evening Standard — publications hooked up to a drip feed of this sort of up-to-the-minute content — then it was fairly obvious PR was involved. Agencies in those days were performing a service, really: linking up people with a new place in need of some customers with potential customers who wanted to know about new places. For restaurateurs, it was a much cheaper way of getting eyeballs than taking out giant ads in Piccadilly Circus; for consumers, it was much easier than trying every place in your neighbourhood, and much faster than waiting on the annual turgid data dump from Michelin.
But — and this will surely be the first time you have ever read this contention — social media changed everything.
PR rushed to the new frontier; the very unpoliceability of this www-dot-Wild-West meant that all sorts of sharp practice became (and remains) fair game: I have seen PRs bigging up their clients with zero acknowledgement of their professional relationship (retweeting to signal-boost positive coverage is especially popular); I can think of multiple publications that put out glowing reviews without disclosing that they didn’t pay so much as a cent.
At first, it seemed like there was a valid alternative out there, that the content produced by independent bloggers, tweeters, and ‘grammers might provide a service for consumers without PRs’ ulterior motive and the attendant temptation to spin, or exaggerate, or maybe even mislead. And for awhile, that’s kind of what happened: for once, we didn’t have to listen to the established critical voices; for once, we had an unvarnished view of what it was like to eat at a hot new opening, to see amateur snaps rather than glossy high-res press shots.
But eyeballs are eyeballs, and as soon as it became clear that enough of them were focused on these new channels — and these new microcelebrities operating within them — then it became inevitable that the more monolithic “conventional” PR houses would seek to co-opt them as another means of spreading the word.
They even invented (or, more accurately, repurposed) a term to make it easier: influencer. It made both parties much more amenable to the ensuing exchanges: PRs could puff the petty vanity of [insert Instagram handles here], giving them the hit of fame and importance that they craved; influencers could graciously accept a whole host of blandishments not as bribes but as homage paid in accordance with their lofty station as, say, the Absolute Clerkenwell Boy; the heralded voice of the Thoroughly Modern Millennial. The practice remains rife across the industry, and if you’re halfway to astute you’ll recognise the indicators: a sudden constellation of ‘grams from a new opening before it’s even open; a loving course-by-course catalogue of the carte blanche tasting menu at a Michelin-starred place you hadn’t thought about for ages; a bunch of snaps from what looks like the coolest party/weekend break/one-night-only event on earth, with a #squad scoring #goals with of all of your other #faves in attendance.
We've never really stopped to consider the Catch-22 irony of the influencer's existence: how they really provide us with nothing; how we follow them because of the privileged access they gain, but they only gain that access because of how many of us follow them. That their content is really just advertising targeted — given foodie filter bubbles — with far more accuracy than that afforded by even the most sophisticated Facebook algorithm; that their recommendation — once trustworthy, because independent — can now be bought with a plate of pasta and a gorgeously appointed Aperol spritz that will really fizz and pop when filtered through Juno.
And it’s not the same as conventional PR — and in fact it’s much worse — because unlike conventional PR (Public Relations, something outward-facing by nature) you welcome these people into your life. Influencer PR is configured around the intimate and personal – you curate the filtered feed that you want to encounter every time you open the app. There is therefore a degree of implicit trust in the relationship, and this trust is abused on a systematic basis by the unfaithful mirror every influencer presents to the world.
The placid perfection of influencer Instagram is a lie; the best-night-of-my-life bonhomie of an influencer group shot is a lie; the boundless, block-caps enthusiasm of an influencer caption is a lie. I wouldn’t be surprised if a decent chunk of some “influencer” followers were themselves a lie, bots bought to boost profiles.
None of this is amazing. We shouldn’t marvel that influencer content is utterly lacking in nuance, that it appears totally blind to even the concept of imperfection. This is a paid-for performance marketing channel; far from a charming cottage industry of like-minded Best Food Friends, it’s cold-bloodedly capitalist.
The real issue is not that this happens — regardless of spatial constraints, no advertiser ever admitted their product was flawed — but how complicit we have become in its perpetuation. Of course, we follow these people — how else will we get an early look at the food from a cool new place? And then we replicate their content, dumbly — crucially, unthinkingly — going to the same places and photographing the same hero dishes, focusing more on the optics than the hedonics; the medium, not the message.
And, sure, it’s not easy to get a nuanced message across — a 'gram gets likes for being arrestingly gorgeous; the small above-the-fold comments field provides a formal constraint on lengthy meditation — but it’s still distressing to see critical faculty whittled so far away; to see grown adults celebrating THAT grain bowl or THOSE momos because that is the accepted like-generating verbal convention in this particular episode of Black Mirror.
And it’s this that I care about more than any ethical concern. Sure, it would be nice if people could be more front-and-centre when they've had their lunch comped; it would be cool if we could introduce some sort of widely accepted and employed shorthand — RIP, #spon: we hardly used ye — to denote when the event you were at was an influencer circle-jerk and not something organic and, like, fun. Instagram itself seems (finally) to be taking baby steps in the right direction. But ultimately it's pretty impossible to police, and not enough people care anyway. We have restaurant critics to be critical, they would argue; can’t we just kick back from time to time and look at some pretty pictures?
Well, no — unless you like looking at pictures of exactly the same thing, described in exactly the same idiolect that renders sponsored and organic content indistinguishable from one another anyway. Instagram — once the only place you could escape the horror of twenty-tweens politics — has become its own repository of rolling coverage, overnight sensationalism, fake news. Like the narrow sliver of the London restaurant scene that it catalogues, it is both homogenous and boring.
We have made it this way, just as we have diminished our chances of exposing ourselves to the genuinely novel by getting our new openings new from the same sources. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that the newest place — the place with the most confected buzz — is the most interesting, most worthy of our attention, when all around our city are monuments to quality that have stood for years. “Influenced” isn’t the right word.
It takes a little effort, but we can break the cycle. We can think critically and with rigour — really start to question the integrity of the sources we consult; pause for thought when something looks too good to be true. We can get your news from places with a relatively robust position about receiving and declaring freebies; we can take our recommendations from people who can tell us when somewhere is bad, as well as when somewhere is AMAZING.
We can continue to engage with PR — in its various guises, it still plays a vital role in the industry — but we can choose the terms on which this interaction takes place; we can follow someone who is clear and transparent about this stuff, rather than someone who isn’t.
This stuff feels small, and it of course takes first place in the world First World Problems index. But it comes down to more fundamental questions around honesty, and integrity, and the effects that messages distorted through these weird social networks have on our mental wellbeing and our physical enjoyment of our time on earth. Everyone knows — and no one likes — the feeling of leaving a hot new place utterly deflated and underwhelmed; all I am proposing is a world in which we all endure a little less status-anxiety FOMO or crushing disappointment, and enjoy some much nicer food.
This has always been a dirty business. In 2017, though, there are parts of it that we have the power (and, I’d argue, the responsibility) to keep clean.