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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Oh my! It’s the Budget! Yeah!

I congratulate the Finance ministry for creating a buzz by recruiting social influencers to raise interest in the upcoming Budget. Sorry, it’s not just a buzz but a fuss. Frankly, I think there’s too much fuss.

So the Finance ministry has decided to go the commercial way and hire 50 or so such young people who are always on Instagram. It hopes that these “influencers’’ will influence their followers to be interested in the Budget. The response from the online community has been pretty negative. They run along the lines:

  1. The MoF and social influencers? A serious numbers-based ministry in bed with those who hawk cosmetics and write food reviews? Haaahaaahaar
  2. These young things know anything about the Budget meh?
  3. Does anyone seriously expect that they can engage in a conversation more serious than “what’s the best lipstick to use’’?

I have been reading the brickbats thrown at MoF and the young people, ranging from their poor copy and bad spelling to the incongruous and insincere manner in which these influencers try to incorporate the news of the looming Budget in their posts.

The social influencers suffer from a credibility problem, especially from the older folk. Those who do NOT follow them on Instagram think that they are all puff and fluff and aren’t poster boy/girl material for the Budget. (I guess this is like movie or sports stars whom we suddenly see hawking a certain brand or product that their fans would not associate with them.)

This frivolous image extends to those who “follow’’ them. In all the reports both offline and offline that I have read, no one seems to have bothered to ask the “followers’’ what they think of their idols’ new MoF activity. Instead, some pleasure is taken in showing the low number of likes and comments for the posts.

The MoF has to take some of blame. It isn’t clear what role these influencers should play. Are they supposed to sustain their followers’ interest right into the Budget debate or simply to get more young people to the “listening posts’’ with the influencers as “bait’’? Are they themselves supposed to engage their fans on issues that the Budget will raise, like whether young people should be paying more tax in view of the ageing population? Is this merely an “awareness’’ campaign or an “engagement’’ campaign?

Then there is the question of renumeration. MoF is coy about giving answers on how much each is paid. The answer from MoF is that it is  “in line with market rates’’. Yet answers from others range from an “honorarium’’ or token, to anywhere between $100 and $800 per post. How MoF spends its money can’t be an official secret surely? Also, giving the amount paid would give readers an idea of the sort of commitment and level of work expected of social influences. I think many would balk if told that the fee for one post – or what we’ve seen of them so far – is $1,000.

Then again, why are people grumbling about whether this is the best use of taxpayers’ funds when they do not complain about the cost of the governments television and print advertisements and online videos? They are probably many, many times more expensive but we don’t ask if we are getting bang for our buck.

In any case, according to their media handler, StarNgage, they’ve more than reached the targeted 225,000 of  Instagram users. So a KPI has been met unless the MoF expects a qualitative aspect as well.

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There’s a certain arrogance and snobbery that surrounds the criticisms of these influencers. We’d rather the MoF do something more erudite, like hold a forum for young people (which only the “converted’’ will attend) or advertisements that tell about the Budget process, albeit with some bells and whistles to get the attention of the young. What is worrying to me is that the complaints seem to lend credence to the view of some sponsors who insist that they not be identified as the paymaster of sponsored posts, because they could get flamed in the same way as MoF. The ministry has, to its credit, been upfront about being behind the posts which have been hash tagged as “sponsored’’.

The thing is, there is always a (big) group of people whom officials find hard to reach. They don’t care about current affairs and don’t see why they should be interested in them. They live on social media and have short attention spans. I think that most don’t know anything about a Budget for their country and likely to go “what’s that?’’

If the social media push has just got a few hundred become “aware’’ of this, why not? If they make their way to the “listening posts’’ to see their idols, rather than give feedback, we can hope that at least an interest is kindled. We shouldn’t expect that they would be able to hold forth on taxes and spending and actually influence the Budget, but we can hope that this is just a prelude to a time when older and wiser, they can take part meaningfully in the process.

As for the not-so-young (including me) and the better-read (including me) can we just acknowledge that these social influencers aren’t targeting their messages at us? Give them a break. They will get better next year, that is, if MoF isn’t spooked by the outcry.



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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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