How to make effective use of celebrities

Howard Lake | 4 March 2005 | News

The government, media and big business all use celebrity endorsement, but how can the voluntary sector attract and use celebrities effectively and appropriately? Catherine Carnie of agency Cause Celeb shares her tips.

Government, media and big business no longer rule the roost – rather they must share their position of power with Jordan, Rooney and Madonna. But what does all this mean to us in the voluntary sector, and how do we harness this power to benefit our organisations and our work? How do we ensure that celebrities and causes are married intelligently both in terms of cause and the management of that interface?

Celebrity support for causes and issues is not new. In the 1950’s UNICEF enrolled Danny Kaye and he sang and tap-danced his way around Africa doing what he did best to support his chosen cause. Times have changed. Celebrity support is not simply for large UN organisations but is, for the voluntary sector, a ‘given’ – to such an extent that a celebrity/cause ‘currency’ has emerged with which audiences are confident and content to engage. The ‘fit’ works. Sir Peter Ustinov said: “When you have the capacity to have an influence on the public, through movies or theatre, it isn’t difficult to have the same experience to solve the humanitarian problem”.

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Larger organisations invariably have a dedicated celebrity co-ordinator. Smaller organisations also recognise a need to involve themselves with celebrity programmes and apply their limited resources to implement this work.

Within the voluntary sector in the UK, celebrities have been used primarily for raising funds. Perhaps the best and most successful example of this is LIVE/BAND AID. But they have also been effectively used for PR and advocacy. This commitment to the cause/celebrity relationship recognises the power of celebrity and acknowledges perhaps the greatest lesson of the advertising industry – celebrity sells.

Bono and Sir Bob Geldof’s tireless efforts on behalf of Jubilee 2000 forced the issue of third world debt to the top of the international political agenda. As Ann Pettifor, Director of Jubilee 2000 Coalition articulated, having a band of high profile celebrities enabled them the get their “story across to journalists in the international mass media”. Even the government of the day has taken to using celebrity support, and we are no longer surprised to see Blair and Bono side by side.

But, there is of course the other edge of the sword. Celebrity has been proven to sell but can also be a liability. Hamish Pringle, an advertising expert, in his recent publication “Celebrity Sells”, suggests that whilst clever use of celebrities can boost business, the opposite is also true. Here is a key lesson for the voluntary sector – a celebrity is neither a panacea nor a magic wand. They cannot be the answer to all of your organisation’s problems.

Like any successful relationship, the match between a celebrity and a voluntary organisation has to be grounded in authenticity and integrity. Organisations such as Water Aid, UNFPA and Christian Aid discovered this to their cost. Darren Ramsey of the first Big Brother fame, cut short his trip with Christian Aid to visit HIV/AIDS programmes in Jamaica – he couldn’t deal with the reality of AIDS. Martine McCutcheon’s trip to Ethiopia to help WaterAid included publishing a ‘faux pas photo shoot’ where she sat perched on top of a spotlessly clean Land Rover. This showed clear disregard for the very limited resource for which she was trying to campaign.

So, as a voluntary organisation, having chosen to explore the benefits of celebrity support, what next? Research is crucial – Internet, TV, radio, celebrity magazines, newspapers, biographies all give you an idea as to whether there are any potential skeletons in cupboards which you will not want dropping out at a critical moment in the future. Key to your choice of who to attempt to enrol is to ensure an authentic connection between your ideal celebrity and your organisation. Keep in mind your media savvy audience – any artificial melding will be obvious and could damage your organisation’s reputation. And, be clear of your expectations. Articulating complex issues or being a visual model? – these require different skills – skills your chosen ambassador may or may not have.

Once you have decided whom you would like to approach, how do you establish the relationship? Much depends on who they are. Most writers, musicians, singers and actors or actresses are contactable through their agents and the best way to find out whom to contact is through their publisher or record company.

Actors and actresses agents can be found in ‘Spotlight’, the casting directory or ‘The Stage’, the actor’s newspaper. Both will be able to direct you to the appropriate person or organisation. “Who’s Who” is also a great source.

Have a rummage around your organisation’s old files. You never know who you might find has supported your cause in the past. Keep networking within your own community – sometimes you know people who know people. You might also choose to do an ‘audit’ of your staff and trustees of who they know.

If you are making contact for the first time a simple effective letter outlining your proposal, together with some limited documentation of your organisation is probably the best first step. It is key to point out why the support of that particular person is important to your organisation.

Coalitions are an increasingly popular way for organisations within the voluntary sector to be greater than the sum of their parts. Work with others in your field – sharing your celebrity support works well for both you and the celebrity. Their impact is greater and requires less of their input.

Once you have your celebrity on board, it is much like any other relationship and you should ensure that it is mutually beneficial. It requires energy, communication, effort, and the ability to put your self in their ‘shoes’. Celebrities operate in a different world, so make the ‘transition’ as easy as possible. Be smart, confident and inspire confidence. John Fashanu once told me “if someone is star-struck, that’s no good, it’s impossible to deal with”.

You and your colleagues will be used to acronyms, jargon etc but to an outsider they can be confusing, off-putting and unintelligible. Find a way to communicate that makes sense to them. Celebrities, like us all, need to be recognised for what they do – give feedback, support and encouragement – make them feel important. Consider what your organsiation can do for them – a title can go a long way. Always say and write thank you and show your appreciation. Keep in touch with them and their lives – make sure they know that you know!

When it comes to identifying what the celebrity can actually do for your organisation, be creative and have very clear expectations. It is key that your celebrity is briefed so they can feel confident with the material. Field/site trips are often one of the best ways for a celebrity to understand what your organisation does. You will find that the more personal an experience they have of your organisation, the more confident they will be. Ensuring that they are always accompanied, whenever they are on duty for your organisation, will make them feel confident and comfortable enabling them to do their best for your organisation.

There are a myriad of activities that are available to you and your celebrity. Different personalities will flourish within different environments. Some successful use of celebrities include: press work; fundraising; media events; fronting campaigns; and mobilising – key donors, policy makers, corporates, industry colleagues. Think creatively and strategically. Meld your organisation’s ongoing activity with the celebrity resource and the result will be authentic, full of integrity and ultimately positive.

Celebrities are an extraordinary power available to the voluntary sector. The world of advertising has proven that correct investment in celebrity support can reap extraordinary benefits. Equally both the world of commerce and the voluntary sector has shown the opposite. Pairing up with a celebrity can be a risky and delicate operation but ultimately fruitful. Like any relationship, researching, clarification of expectations, good communication and the ability to put yourself in the other’s position are key to ensuring the best outcome. There are numerous ways to use your celebrity and numerous ways to engage them. Crucially our 21st century celebrity obsession can harness celebrities’ desire to do as Sir Peter Ustinov believed and resonate with the 21st century mood of joint responsibility and joint action.


Catherine Carnie is director of Cause Celeb. Cause Celeb has over 12 years professional experience working with the voluntary sector, related organisations and celebrities. We offer an affordable and personalised consultancy service, which enables your organisation to reap the greatest return from a cause/celebrity relationship.